The Catholic University of America

July 22, 2009

CUA Researcher Gets $516,000 NASA Grant to Explore Saturn's Atmosphere

  Saturn, as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft, whose infrared radiation readings CUA's Ronald Carlson is deciphering. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Now orbiting Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft is radioing information about that planet and its rings and satellites back to Earth. At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., CUA research associate Ronald Carlson has received a three-year $516,000 NASA grant to decipher the radioed infrared radiation measurements that will help scientists understand the atmosphere and weather conditions of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan.

Measuring the infrared radiation in Saturn's and Titan's atmospheres will reveal what molecules are present, their temperatures and velocities. This data will help scientists understand the climate of Saturn and its biggest moon and how those bodies formed an estimated 5 billion years ago, according to Carlson, a faculty member in CUA's physics department who works at NASA's Goddard center.

The Cassini spectrometer that measures Saturn's infrared radiation is one of 12 scientific instruments on board the spacecraft, which was launched in 1997 as a joint venture of NASA and the European Space Agency. Carlson's task includes cleaning up the Cassini infrared radiation data, which has been contaminated by electrical noise from the spacecraft.

Fifty percent larger than Earth's moon, Titan is the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere. Of special interest to astrophysicists, it is the only large body in the solar system that, like the Earth, contains water ice, abundant carbon, a nitrogen-based atmosphere and liquid lakes (composed of hydrocarbons).

The infrared spectrometer data that Carlson is deciphering will also be used to determine the thermal structure of Saturn's rings and to determine ring material composition and particle size, among other facts.

The atmospheres of Saturn and Titan were largely a mystery before Cassini began transmitting its data, according to NASA.

"It's intoxicating to work in this field, studying the unknown, learning more about how planets and the solar system formed and thinking about deeper questions such as why we are here," says Carlson.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University's Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.