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Research Opportunities in Astronomy

Saturn views obtained as part of Prof. Richard French's 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 observations using our own 24-inch Sawyer telescope on campus, as well as larger telescopes worldwide. Students have accompanied their professors to

In addition, faculty and students conduct research using data from space-based telescopes and probes, including

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

Mass Loss from Red Giants and Supergiants (W. Bauer)

Professor 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.

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 a member 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. Stay tuned! Cassini's “extended mission” XM will continue in 2009-2010, and the science teams are actively planning for the XXM — the “extended XM” — that 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 are taking Pluto's atmospheric temperature in advance of the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto in 2015.

Seeking Young, Bright Companions (K. McLeod)

Associate Professor Kim McLeod is using the Hubble Space Telescope to take pictures of brown dwarfs in the Taurus region. The pictures will be used to search for giant planets and planet-forming disks around these young, small, “almost stars,” and will help us to understand how brown dwarfs form.

Growing Galaxies with Monstrous Middles (K. McLeod)

Associate Professor Kim McLeod is using two of the world's largest telescopes, Magellan I and Gemini North, to look at some of the most distant quasars known. Infrared images of the galaxies that these quasars live in will help us learn about how galaxies formed in the early Universe.

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 space.com article, the Nature manuscript, and a subsequent Nature “News and Views”.

Past Projects at Whitin