Research in the Planetary Science Group

Cosmochemistry and the History of the Solar System

We seek to elucidate chemical and physical processes in the solar nebula through the study of extraterrestrial materials. Experiments in high-temperature furnaces are designed to constrain the melting kinetics of meteoritic minerals. Hydrogen, sulfur and oxygen isotope ratios of minerals constrain element reservoirs in meteorite parent bodies, Mars and teh Moon. Observations of exosolar systems are used to shed light under formation conditions of our own.

Young Stars and their Proto-planetary Disks

The raw material for planet formation comes from flattened disks of gas and dust orbiting young stars.  As planetary systems evolve, they interact with their natal material.  A program to monitor fields in young clusters with a CCD attached to the Perkin telescope has been in place at Van Vleck Observatory since 1991. We concentrate on regions in or near the Orion Nebula cluster and in NGC 2264. Recently, these surveys have led to the discovery of a unique star, KH 15D, that appears to be surrounded by a clumpy circumstellar disk.  Ongoing research at Wesleyan also measures the gas and dust in circumstellar disks using radio telescopes.  Studying the disks gives us insight into how and when in the lifetime of a star planets might form, and can tell us what types of planets and systems are commonly formed (e.g., is our own solar system typical?).

Transiting Exoplanets

The Wesleyan Transiting Exoplanet Project (WesTEP) utilizes the on-campus 24-inch Perkin Telescope to observe the light curves of stars as their planets transit, and the largest telescopes in the world to take spectra of the transiting exoplanet's atmosphere.

Planetary Geology and Mineralogy

This work includes fundamental mapping of the planets, notably Venus and Mars. A PG&G- funded project examines the structural evolution of venusian highlands using geologic mapping and geophysical modeling. We are also examining mineral deposits associated with ancient and modern water-rich landforms on Mars through mapping and hyperspsctral data analysis as well as modeling and spectral characterization of evaporite systems in the lab.

Limits of Life - Biogeochemistry and the Local Interstellar Medium

This research in the laboratory and analogue field sites (e.g., St. Lucia, Argentina) emphasizes the study of the habitat, energy pathways, and geochemical imprint of extremophiles with application to martian environments.  Spectra of the nearest stars are analyzed in order to reconstruct a three-dimensional morphological model of the gas and dust in our immediate cosmic neighborhood.

Planetary Mission Planning

How can we maximize data return from rovers at Mars? With colleagues at JPL, we are developing software to help rovers and orbiters recognize minerals of geologic interest in vis/NIR spectra autonomously. We actively participate in Venus mission planning through VEXAG and the Decadal Survey.

Environmental Remote Sensing

The interpretation of remotely sensed images is the foundation of planetary mapping and mineralogy and is a powerful tool for the examination of environmental change on the Earth. An EPA-funded project with UConn seeks to monitor the distribution and health of marshes around Long Island Sound using using Landsat, ASTER, Quickbird, and in situ spectroscopy. Similar techniques are used to evaluate the possibility of detecting stress in plants due to heavy metal contamination in western CT and monitoring red tide species in Long Island Sound.