Planetary Science: Learning and presenting physics, astronomy, planetary science, and the history of spaceflight

Plan Author,

  • Samuel Bunker, 2018

Fields of Concentration

  • Astronomy

Sample Courses

  • Course: Electricity & Magnetism
  • Course: Experimental Physics
  • Tutorial: Planetary Science
  • Tutorial: Thermal Physics

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • F. Peter Schloerb, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This plan of concentration examines topics in physics, astronomy, planetary science, and spaceflight history. A secondary focus is placed on space education. The first component of this plan is a research paper examining Pan and Atlas, moons of Saturn, with particular attention paid to the ridges which span each moon’s equator. This paper comes in two parts: Part 1 being a general overview of Pan, Atlas, and their immediate surroundings, and Part 2 examining the equatorial ridges in greater detail, including original research attempting to determine physical conditions and material characteristics of the ridges. The second component is an independent research paper, examining the role that animals and plants have played in spaceflight. The third and final component is a series of educational presentations, four in total, given over the course of several semesters, to a variety of audiences. A reflective piece on the first three presentations, as well as scripts and speaking notes, are included to supplement video recordings taken during the presentations.


Our most prominent theory on ring formation posits that rings form when a large satellite passes through its Roche limit and is destroyed. The pieces of the destroyed satellite then enter orbit around the parent planet, and become the rings. By this theory, one might expect their common origin to be a factor in the thinness and uniformity we observe in many ring systems. Saturn’s rings, for example, can range anywhere from a kilometer down to one meter thick, razor thin in astronomical terms. However, just because the ring particles all came from the same place, it doesn’t mean that they would have a low average inclination. Post-breakup, particles would occupy a variety of orbits across a spread of random angles, leading to a thick ring. The thinness we observe via the ring’s optical depth is the result of flattening processes.

The barriers between a person and space weren’t simply technical. There were also a huge number of medical unknowns that would need to be addressed before sending a person to space. Basic questions like “could a human survive the g-forces of a trip to and from space” had no answer at that time. There are two specific points in a suborbital mission where g-forces—measured as multiples of g, one Earth gravity—are a concern: the ascent, and the descent. During launch, the rocket accelerates continuously until it runs out of fuel. Inside the rocket, the passenger would experience an acceleration several times stronger than Earth’s gravity. Fighter pilots had proven that they could survive stronger g-forces than those created by a rocket, but no one knew how the sustained acceleration would affect a pilot. The other point was during the descent, at parachute deploy. When a parachute opens, it slows down the capsule in an instant, a burst of around a dozen g’s. It was hard to predict how such an intense burst of acceleration would affect a pilot.


The most memorable part of Plan was how easy the home stretch was. It actually made me a little nervous: I felt like I’d forgotten something. But I hadn’t, really. I had just budgeted my time well, probably for the first time in my entire life. My plan tutorials really let me find my own way. Sara gave me a pretty long leash, which let me arrive at conclusions on my own. My Plan was designed in part to prepare me for working as an educator in a museum setting.

The most inspiring part to me was probably the Pan and Atlas two-part research paper. There are some interesting ideas in there, and Pan and Atlas are both really cool. Inspiration really hit after the high-resolution Cassini images were released in March of 2017. I had been interested in Saturn already, but seeing those images really gave me a direction to shoot towards.


The rings of Saturn.
Saturn’s moon Atlas.
A function describing the ridges of Pan, Saturn’s Moon.