Beyond the Solar System: Cosmic Disks

September 2017


Dr. Brandon Lawton (STScI)


  • Dr. Bonnie Meinke (Space Telescope Science Institute)
  • Dr. Rachel Akeson (Infrared Processing and Analysis Center)
  • Dr. Marc Kuchner (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

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Briefing date: September 7, 2017 (3:30pm)



On September 15, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft will undergo a controlled descent into Saturn’s atmosphere, thus ending nearly 20 years of dedicated observations of the Saturnian system. Since the time of Galileo, Saturn’s rings have been a source of wonder and beauty. Astronomers now know that these celestial disks appear in many environments, from the relatively small scale (around planets) to scales of galaxies. In honor of Cassini’s mission, this Universe of Learning Science Briefing will explore some of these types of disks found beyond our Solar System. There will also be a demonstration and connection to a popular citizen science activity and a list of additional resources for you to share.


Dr. Bonnie Meinke is a Deputy Project Scientist for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which will be home to the science and mission operations center for the upcoming Webb Telescope Mission. Her scientific research has focused on the Saturn system: observing rings, discovering the building blocks of moons, and puzzling over geysers on Enceladus. She’s also actively involved in spreading the word about NASA’s Webb Telescope - from huge festivals like SXSW to rural libraries in the Rockies - by helping everyone experience the life of scientists for themselves.

Dr. Rachel Akeson is a research scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech. Her research involves using a variety of observational techniques, including interferometry at radio and sub-millimeter wavelengths to study star and planet formation.  She has worked on many NASA missions and projects including the Keck Interferometer and Kepler and is currently working on WFIRST.

Dr. Marc Kuchner is a staff member at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, known for his work on images and imaging of disks and exoplanets. Together with Wesley Traub, he invented the band-limited coronagraph. He is also known for his novel supercomputer models of planet-disk interactions, and for developing the ideas of ocean planets, carbon planets, and Helium planets. Kuchner currently serves as the principal investigator of the popular citizen science websites Disk Detective and Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.

Kuchner received his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard in 1994. After he earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from Caltech in 2000, Kuchner studied at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as a Michelson Fellow, and then at Princeton University as a Hubble Fellow. He was awarded the 2009 SPIE early career achievement award for his work on coronagraphy.