We call them “small bodies” but they are big on science! We study the evolution and properties of comets, asteroids, trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), and all other related non-‘planet’ populations in the Solar System such as Trojans and Centaurs. They are all remnants from the era of planetary formation over 4 ½ billion years ago, and so give us clues to answer some of the most fundamental questions in astronomy and planetary science: What were the initial ingredients of the solar nebula? How were those ingredients distributed? How much of Earth’s water came from asteroids, and how much from comets? Where are all the organics? Where are the original reservoirs of ice? What does the interior structure reveal about how the bodies were put together?
To study the small bodies, we use ground-based and space-based telescopes to obtain images, photometry, and spectra in visible, infrared, and radio wavelengths, allowing us to understand things like composition, thermal properties, mechanical properties, rotation state, shape, binarity, and the nearby dust environment. For example, the animated picture at right shows processed images revealing day-to-day changes in Comet 29P as it suffers an outburst that shed about a billion kilograms of dust and ice in just a few hours. We are also the site of CLASS, the NASA SSERVI-funded Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science. We also use spacecraft missions to visit specific comets and asteroids and investigate them in unprecedented detail as geological objects. All this lets us understand what the small bodies are like today — and, most crucially, how they are evolving — so we can eventually work backward and truly understand how small bodies represent the make-up of the early Solar System.
Many of our current faculty (and alumni!) have been honored with having asteroids named for them!
Faculty: Dr. Humberto Campins, Dr. Yan Fernández, Dr. Dan Britt, Dr. Noemí Pinilla-Alonso.
Postdoctoral Researchers: Dr. Zoe Landsman, Dr. Estela Fernández Valenzuela, Dr. Mario De Prá, Dr. Charles Schambeau, Dr. Leos Pohl
Graduate Students: Mary Hinkle, Jenny Larson, Karlis Slumba, Brynn Presler-Marshall, Brittany Harvison