Student explores mysterious shapes in Saturn’s rings

Student explores mysterious shapes in Saturn’s rings

April 10, 2019
By Matt Windsor
Physics major Jakayla Robinson reports on her study of a feature known as a giant propeller as part of the UAB Spring Expo.

Jakayla Robinson was first drawn to UAB by the forensic science program. Now she’s collecting evidence to explain puzzling objects 745 million miles away. The senior from Mobile is majoring in physics and minoring in mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences, training that will prepare her to tackle the biggest mystery of all: the origins of life itself.

Since last summer, Robinson has been working with mentor Matthew Tiscareno, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California, to study odd features in Saturn’s rings known as propellers, which Tiscareno first reported in 2006. “Propellers are disturbances in Saturn’s rings caused by tiny moonlets — particles of dust that have clumped together and created a gravitational field,” Robinson said. This leaves a hole in the surrounding ring disc that resembles the blades of an airplane propeller — hence the name – with the moonlet at the center.

Photographic evidence

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured thousands of images of propellers between the time it arrived in Saturn’s orbit in 2004 until it was deliberately plunged into the gas giant’s atmosphere in 2017. (See NASA video above.) Tiscareno believes that study of the propeller moonlets can help researchers understand the development of protoplanetary discs and other disc-embedded objects in an early solar system.

Last year Robinson, who had recently switched to a physics major, contacted Tiscareno to see if he had any places in his lab and ended up with a summer position. “I didn’t have any background in physics until I got to UAB,” Robinson said. “But the more I learn, the more I feel like physics explains life itself. The whole reason I went to SETI is because I’m interested in finding life on other planets.”

Research 2.0

Robinson’s project, “Photometry of giant propellers in Saturn’s rings from close-range Cassini images,” is one of hundreds of research projects by UAB undergraduates that will be presented at the 2019 UAB Spring Expo.

The event, which celebrates its 12th anniversary this year, showcases research, scholarship and other academic endeavors by UAB undergraduates on April 18 and 19.

She and a number of other undergraduates stayed in a NASA-owned lodge in Mountain View (SETI is a major NASA contractor) and had their own workstations in the Tiscareno lab. “It wasn’t the typical 9-to–5” workday, Robinson said. “Every student had building access and we could work whenever we wanted to, when we were most productive. Matt is a great mentor.”

Robinson’s research uses photometry — measurements of images — to compare the lit and unlit sides of propellers in Saturn’s outermost ring, known as the “A” ring. “I’m studying the difference in opacities between the sunlit and unlit images from Cassini and creating a subtracted image of the two and looking at the differences,” she said. “By studying the viewing geometry of Santos-Dumont, we gain insight into the origin of propellers and how they can be used to study planetary formation.”

New horizons

Robinson will present her research on one propeller, named Santos-Dumont after the Brazilian aviation pioneer (see NASA images of the propeller here) , at the UAB Spring Expo on April 19. The event features research from hundreds of undergraduates across a variety of fields.

Robinson plans to return to the Tiscareno lab in summer 2019 and she is scheduled to graduate in December. She hopes to work in the Peace Corps, “teaching STEM topics in Africa,” before starting graduate school for astrophysics and cosmology. “Being a black female, you don’t see a lot of physicists,” Robinson said. “I hope to inspire kids to expand their horizons.”