Astrophysicist brings findings from far-away planets to Lincoln

by Laura Jones – PR Officer

As one of the most scientifically rich voyages ever undertaken in our solar system reaches its dramatic conclusion, an astrophysicist who examines data from NASA’s pioneering Cassini mission joins the University of Lincoln, UK, to establish an exciting new specialism in space, planets and moon formation.

Dr Phil Sutton’s work focusses on the scientific study of the rings around Saturn – the second largest planet in our solar system.

His research uses optical images sent back to Earth from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is currently orbiting Saturn after almost 20 years in space. Cassini is now embarking on the final chapter of its remarkable exploration – labelled its ‘Grand Finale’.

Cassini was launched in 1997, took seven years to travel to Saturn, and has spent the last 13 years orbiting the planet. Throughout its journey, Cassini has sent an extensive catalogue of invaluable data back to Earth to help scientists like Dr Sutton build a clearer picture of our solar system.

The spacecraft’s final mission sees it undertake a daring set of orbits. Following a close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan, Cassini is leaping over the planet’s icy rings and carrying out a series of dives between the planet and its rings. No other mission has ever explored this new region and what we learn from Cassini’s final orbits will help inform our understanding of how giant planets – and planetary systems everywhere – form and evolve.

Dr Sutton, who joins the University of Lincoln’s School of Mathematics and Physics on 1st September 2017, will explore these fascinating findings in a public lecture which is free to attend and open to all.

Taking place on Wednesday 11th October 2017, Dr Sutton’s public talk is titled Cassini: Over a decade of discoveries. It will be the School of Mathematics and Physics’ first Edmund Weaver Lecture in Astronomy and will take place at 6pm in the University’s new Isaac Newton Lecture Theatre on the Brayford Pool Campus. Attendance is free but places should be booked online in advance.

Dr Sutton said: “The Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004. The unprecedented detail of more than a decade’s worth of observations of Saturn, its rings and many moons has helped further our understanding of our solar system.

“With Cassini now being placed onto a direct collision with Saturn we are expecting the most exciting science yet to come from these more risky manoeuvres. In my talk, I will recap some of the most significant discoveries that Cassini has made and explore the findings of its Grand Finale – its very last contributions to science.”

As part of his PhD research, Dr Sutton sought to create numerical models to replicate observations taken by the Cassini spacecraft. He used these to explore and understand Saturn’s narrow ‘F ring’ and now continues to investigate how planetary rings behave. Ultimately, studying planetary rings can help us to understand moon formation. Moons around other worlds are recognised as some of the best opportunities to find life. Dr Sutton also specialises in the study of new exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) which have been discovered around multiple stars.

He comes to the University of Lincoln from Loughborough University where he was responsible for the university’s astronomical observatory, and for teaching practical astronomy including practical physics laboratories and astrophysics.

His arrival signals the launch of astrophysics as a new research area for the University of Lincoln’s School of Mathematics and Physics, with a specific focus on planetary rings and disks, like those found around Saturn. This will open up new opportunities for undergraduate Physics students at Lincoln to study the complex dynamics of rings through spacecraft observations and computer modelling during their final year projects.

Another astrophysics research direction at Lincoln will be into the moons around exoplanets which are considered large enough to support life. They will ask whether these moons formed around the planet they are orbiting, just as the largest moons in our solar system did, or whether they are in fact captured smaller planets that came too close.

Professor Andrei Zvelindovsky, Head of the School of Mathematics and Physics at Lincoln, said: “We are delighted to welcome Dr Phil Sutton to Lincoln and to launch what is a fascinating new area for the School.

“The University of Lincoln continues to invest in supporting and growing a full range of science disciplines, including the two oldest of sciences – Mathematics and Physics. Our new Isaac Newton Building provides an excellent infrastructure for this development and we are pleased that it will now also be home to innovative research in astrophysics, without which the subject of Physics is not complete. Now, our students will be able to work alongside and learn from scientists who are exploring the wonders of far-away worlds.”

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© School of Mathematics and Physics, University of Lincoln, Brayford Pool, Lincoln, LN6 7TS, United Kingdom
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