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From Stones to Sky: The Award Winning Research of a Planetary Scientist

When Dr. Jani Radebaugh isn’t in a geology classroom or her office, you can guess she’s across the world researching and collecting geological samples.

Radebaugh is not just any geologist: she’s a planetary scientist, studying the geology of the solar system using Earth’s geological features as analogues for other planets.  Recently she’s been to Australia, Morocco, Iceland, the Sahara, and Antarctica.

“I’ve always loved space. I thought space would be a really fun career and then to realize that I can also combine that with a love of being outdoors and of traveling and going to really unique places all around Earth—that’s the perfect blend of everything,” Radebaugh said.

Radebaugh’s passion for her research led to her receiving the BYU Sponsored Research Recognition Award at the Annual University Conference this August.  This award recognizes faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in scholarly activities funded by external sponsors.

“It was very surprising and such a nice honor,” Radebaugh said. “It’s nice to be recognized.”

For the past several years, Radebaugh has worked with NASA as an associate member of the Cassini Radar Science Team, which has been orbiting Saturn’s moon Titan.  As part of the team, she gets the first look at all the pictures of the celestial body the satellite sends back.

“What’s fun is you get to see new terrain on Titan that no one has ever seen before,” Radebaugh said. “We get to see all of that first.”

Her work with planetary research involves taking all the satellite pictures of bodies in the solar system, looking at landscapes from similar regions on Earth, and creating an idea of that planet’s or moon’s history.

“I like to be able to see things, take the little bits and pieces, and start to put them together as a system. . . . It’s fun to see all these things snap into place and make sense,” she said.

While she can’t physically do research on the planets and moons she studies, she still finds studying the geological features of the solar system exhilarating.

“It’s still exciting because it feels like baby steps. It’s a bit ‘line upon line.’ . . . We’re just gradually learning about these bodies slowly,” Radebaugh said.

Though Cassini is wrapping up its mission around Titan in the next year, Radebaugh has hopes for future missions to other bodies in the solar system.  Some possibilities include Venus, the Moon, or even Titan again someday.  Regardless of the mission, her expertise and passion for doing research is apparent and contagious.


By Kate Ferguson Posted on