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Studying Planets Without Looking Through a Telescope

Darin Ragozzine has always been fascinated with space, planets, and stars—but he rarely looks through a telescope.

“The thing that I focus on is not so much taking the pictures, but I take the data and the pictures from the telescope, and I use physics to see what it means,” Ragozzine explained.

Ragozzine began teaching at BYU last fall in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The combination of his interest in math, space, and problem-solving led Ragozzine to astronomy.

“Astronomy is a unique science because, in many sciences, if an experiment doesn’t go well, you can tweak it and redo it,” Ragozzine said.  “But with astronomy, we get what we get from the sky and nothing more. Because of that, it sometimes requires a little bit more problem-solving, and I really like that component of it.”

Born and raised in Southern Utah, Ragozzine developed an early aptitude for math and physics. After graduating from high school, he studied physics and astronomy at Harvard University and then pursued his master’s and doctorate degrees at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

“In astronomy, there’s almost no other track,” Ragozzine said. “Most of space science is done at universities by professors. And there are many people who want to get in, but professor positions are very rare, so it’s very difficult.”

Ragozzine admits that the road to get to where he is today, was not an easy one.

“Looking back, I thought, ‘Whew, I barely made it!’” Ragozzine said. “Now that I’m on the professor side and I have students who want to do that, I make it clear to them that this is a tough thing. To stay in that game, you have to be willing to get a PhD and then complete multiple post-doctoral research internships.”

The husband and father of four did just that with three years of post-doctorate research at Harvard, and then one year at the University of Florida.

The Utah native eventually landed a position at Florida Institute of Technology, the closest university to the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Given its proximity to NASA, Ragozzine and his family lived in an area of Florida called the “Space Coast” and even lived in a town called Satellite Beach. But with both his and his wife’s family based in Utah and with his wife a BYU alumna, Ragozzine left the Sunshine State to return to the Beehive State.

“There were three major things that really were a draw for me,” Ragozzine said. “One was personal, another one was professional, and the third one was the very unique opportunity I have at BYU to interact with students at 100 percent.”

The former Florida Tech professor is excited to interact with his students 100 percent at BYU.

“Instead of only interacting with them academically, I could interact with the whole person and include the spiritual component,” Ragozzine said. “I’m very much looking forward in class to connecting aspects of the Gospel to what we learn in class.”

Furthermore, Ragozzine is excited to mentor his students and involve them in his research projects.

“BYU students are strong academically, as well as hard-working and generally great people,” Ragozzine said. “I have many, many research project ideas that I’d love students to help out with at every level. The research that I tend to do is a little more accessible and so I’m looking forward to working with students and finding that right balance with how many students I work with.”

Ragozzine’s research focuses on two areas: (1) planets around other stars and (2) objects beyond Neptune in the outer solar system. He has at least four active grants with institutions like NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope that his students will be able to learn and gain experience from.

“My special niche is using orbits to understand how these planets are put together in systems—understanding how these exoplanetary systems are structured,” Ragozzine said. “I also study the dwarf planet Haumea. So, I am looking forward to starting these new projects with BYU students. There are so many interesting things that can be looked at.”

And although Ragozzine never dreamed of being an astronaut, there is one special planet that he would love to visit.

“I’d love to visit Haumea,” Ragozzine said. “It’s one of the most interesting objects in the solar system and if we didn’t know as much as we know about Pluto, everybody would be studying Haumea!”



By Maureen Elinzano Posted on