The research interests of the Astronomy Dept. faculty span a wide range of specialties, from planetary sciences to stellar and extragalactic astronomy. Department faculty and students conduct research using observations from our own 24-inch Sawyer telescope on campus, as well as larger telescopes worldwide and spacecraft throughout the solar system. 

Wellesley College is also part of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC), a group of eight liberal arts colleges with astronomy research programs. The consortium supports student summer research exchanges.

Additional summer research opportunities off-campus are available through the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program; their site includes a searchable listing of REU programs in astronomy and astrophysics.

Current Research Projects at Whitin Observatory

A Ringside View of Saturn (R. French)

After a seven year interplanetary journey, the Cassini spacecraft began its orbital tour of the Saturn system in 2004. Professor Richard French is the leader of the Cassini Radio Science Team, and uses the Cassini radio signal to study the rings and atmosphere of Saturn and the nature of Titan, an enigmatic moon large enough to retain its own atmosphere. When the spacecraft is in just the right orbital configuration, a beam of radio waves sent toward the Earth passes through the rings or atmosphere. By studying the ways in which the radio signals are affected, Professor French and his students are determining the detailed structure of the rings and the temperature of Saturn's and Titan's atmospheres. Cassini is scheduled to orbit Saturn until 2017, when it will be programmed to crash into Saturn. If all continues to go well, Cassini should provide opportunities for student research for years to come.

The Uranian Rings (R. French)

The narrow rings of Uranus, discovered more than 30 years ago, continue to offer surprises. Unlike Saturn's rings, the Uranian rings are very narrow and dark, with inclined and elliptical orbits. Using Hubble Space Telescope and Mt. Palomar Observatory images taken when the rings were edge-on as seen from Earth, Professor French and his colleagues are investigating the rings and the very small Uranian moons that interact with each other. He and his students are also making use of observations of stellar occultations — moments when the rings block the light of distant stars — to determine the precise orbital characteristics of the rings.

Pluto's Dynamic Atmosphere (R. French)

Planet or not, Pluto is an intriguing distant world with a very tenuous atmosphere that can be studied from Earth. By watching the light of distant stars dim as they pass behind Pluto's refracting atmosphere, Prof. French and his colleagues took Pluto's atmospheric temperature in advance of the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto in 2015. He and his colleagues are using supercomputers to investigate the winds and dynamics of Pluto's atmosphere with a detailed global circulation model.

Strange orbits of the tiny moons of Uranus (R. French)

Uranus is surrounded by a bevy of closely-spaced small moons, and from Hubble Space Telescope observations, we now know that these moons are misbehaving by gravitationally perturbing each other's orbits. In her senior honors thesis, Bekki Dawson showed that these tiny satellites show all of the signs of chaotic orbits.  Bekki is now a faculty member at Penn State.

Exploring Exoplanets (K. McLeod)

Professor McLeod and her students are using our campus 24-inch telescope to look for and at stars that have planets orbiting them.  When the orbits of such "exoplanets" are aligned perfectly with Earth, the planet blocks a tiny fraction of the star's light each time it passes in front of the star from our point of view.  We are collaborators on the very neat KELT project, for which we perform followup observations to help confirm or reject suspected exoplanets.

Earth's Nearest Neighbors (K. McLeod)

Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are Earth's million (or more) nearest neighbors, yet we know little about their true sizes and compositions.  They offer us the chance to probe the evolution of the Solar System...and to assess the hazards they pose for Earthlings should one impact the Earth.  They are now being discovered at the rate of about 1000 per year, but efforts to characterize them are falling farther behind.  Professor McLeod and her students are exploring ways to use telescopes both small and large to optimize follow-up observations of these objects. 

Asteroid Siblings Oddly Grouped by Orientation (S. Slivan)

Until recently, planetary astronomers took for granted that collisions randomize the spin rates and axis directions of small asteroids. Observations from the Wellesley College observatory and elsewhere led to the surprising discovery that previously unsuspected forces are at work instead, lining up asteroid axes in space and matching their spin rates. Dr. Steve Slivan leads this team. For more details check out the Nature manuscript, and a subsequent Nature “News and Views”.

Formation and modification of impact craters (W. Watters)

On the Earth, small impact craters are quickly buried and eroded, and so cannot be studied easily or in large numbers.  Imagery from rover and orbiter missions to Mars and the Moon have beamed back to Earth an abundance of high-resolution stereo imagery of small impact craters.  Prof. Watters and his students use these data to make 3-D models of impact craters and then take measurements to characterize their structure and shape.  The results of statistical analyses of these data are used to test complex numerical models of impact crater formation as well as modification on the martian and lunar surfaces.

Past Projects at Whitin

Professor Emerita Wendy Bauer studies the process of mass loss from stars in the late stages of their lives. She uses data from the Hubble Space Telescope to investigate the long-period interacting binary star system VV Cephei, in which a mass-losing supergiant star is orbited by a smaller, hotter companion. Every 20 years, the hot star goes into eclipse behind the supergiant, which allows us to study the structure of the different layers of the extended supergiant atmosphere.