Research

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, lasting until September 15, 2017, when the spacecraft was (intentionally!) crashed into Saturn. Professor Richard French led the Cassini Radio Science Team, which used the Cassini radio signal to study the rings and atmosphere of Saturn and the nature of Titan, a fascinating moon large enough to retain its own atmosphere. When the spacecraft was in just the right orbital configuration, a beam of radio waves sent toward the Earth passed 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. The Cassini mission has come to and end, but a rich trove of observations of the Saturn system will provide opportunities for student research for years to come.

Hubble Telescope Observations of Iapetus (R. French)

Professor Richard French has been awarded observing time with the Hubble Space Telescope to observe Saturn's moon, Iapetus, at ultraviolet wavelengths that were inaccessible to Cassini spacecraft instruments. He will lead an interdisciplinary team of research scientists to unmask the "dark side" of this enigmatic moon to determine the composition and origin of its surface material.  Observations are tentatively scheduled to take place in 2018-2019 - stay tuned!

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.