December 2, 2005

Harvard Fellow Discusses Saturn

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Saturn moved a bit closer to Ithaca last night as Dr. Alison Farmer, a first year fellow at Harvard, presented her findings in a report on the planet’s infamous spokes. Farmer, a graduate of Caltech and a student of astrophysics, gave an in-depth presentation to a packed room of students and faculty in the Space Sciences Center.

Farmer began her lecture, “Ghosts of Saturn: Understanding the Spokes,” by claiming that the spokes present one of the “most outstanding issues in solar science today.”

In 1980, the spacecraft Voyager 1 discovered numerous spokes imbedded in Saturn’s rings, and ever since they have remained an enigma to scientists. However, collecting data about Saturn is difficult, as its distance from the Sun is nearly ten times the Earth’s, and it rotates on its axis nearly twice as fast, so there has been limited information collected since. The last time the spokes were seen was by Voyager 2 in 1996, during the spring and fall seasons, but they have not been seen on any subsequent voyages.

The main focus of Farmer’s lecture was to describe the significance of the spokes, and how they came to into existence. It has been very difficult to create theories on the spokes given the limited data available, and the distance of Saturn from the Earth. While she has yet to a reach a definitive conclusion on the spokes, Farmer was able to narrow down her research to two theories.

“While I was able to throw away many of my theories given the complex requirements that they have to fulfill” Farmer said, “I really like these last two theories, but they could still be entirely wrong.”

Towards the end, Farmer seemed cautiously optimistic about the future of spokes research, concluding her presentation by saying that more new information will become available over the next nine months, and that so far no proposed model has definitively worked. Yet, she seemed very confident that when the solution is reached, it will be indisputable.

“This is one of those things that has a very specific set of clues, so when we find the theory that fits every different clue perfectly, we will have our answer,” Farmer concluded.

After her presentation, the room was opened to questions, and the faculty present used it as an opportunity to press Farmer for answers on parts of her theory they were skeptical about. Farmer was able to effectively answer most of the questions, and consistently reminded the audience that she herself is unsure of the veracity of her two theories.

In response to a question about why Saturn’s spokes are worth such painstaking research, Farmer responded that, “The physics used to research the spokes can be applicable to other areas of science, like pulsars and accretion disks. But there is also just something mysterious about the whole thing”.

Archived article by Josh Harris
Sun Staff Writer