What's lurking within the rings of Saturn?

The rings of Saturn are among the most beautiful objects in nature, but that's just the beginning. The rings are also a powerful natural laboratory for studying the physics of disks in space. And, with more than a decade of data returned by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the mysteries waiting to be solved are infinite.

WHY STUDY THE RINGS?

From beautiful spiral galaxies to brand-new star systems and massive black holes, nature is chock full of disks. There's just one problem: they are all really far away! Without high-resolution observations, we can only hope to understand so much about this common class of astronomical phenomenon. Closer and more easily observable, the rings of Saturn offer a tantalizing analog right here in our solar system. Although the comparison is imperfect, we can glean an incredible amount of information without even leaving the solar system.

Museum exhibits should be easy to design and manage

Walk into a modern museum and there is technology everywhere. From projectors to TVs to tablets, displays surround every visitor. But too often they exist in their own worlds, unaware of what is going on around them and unable to be controlled in unison. The Constellation project aims to unify these disparate systems into an ensemble capable of enabling visitor interaction and dynamic presentations.

I'm developing the initial version of Constellation for use at Fiske Planetarium, where visitors will be able to use tablets to interact with wall-mounted displays to learn about the life of a shooting star. Future plans include linking Science on a Sphere with other remote displays to, for example, allow the moons of Jupiter to pop up on screens around a massive representation of the Red Planet.

Saving the Earth from your backyard

Over the last few hundred years, we've discovered more than 12,000 so-called "near-Earth objects" - bodies which pass within 1.3 AU of the Sun. However, this is only a fraction of the objects out there and Earth's history has shown us that encounters with such space rocks can result in dramatic effects on our world. Increasingly, large surveys such as NEOWISE are dominating the hunt for the next killer object, but that doesn't mean you can't help!

What Can You Do?

PhAst in use studying a recently-discovered asteroid.

PhAst in use studying a recently-discovered asteroid.

Even a relatively small telescope can help refine the orbits of asteroids nearby to the Earth. By contributing observations to the Minor Planet Center, amateur astronomers help researchers better predict the trajectories of these elusive objects. To aid in this effort, I developed a freely-available software package called PhAst, which streamlines the process of collecting the relevant data and accurately reporting it to the MPC. PhAst has been used at Kitt Peak National Observatory to help process followup observations for dozens of near-Earth objects and remains in use today. In addition to providing support for these observations, PhAst is also among the most powerful IDL-based astronomical image manipulation programs, with a wide variety of possible applications.