Research Interests

Saturn’s F ring

Current and previous work centered around creating and running numerical models of Saturn’s rings, making direct comparisons to Cassini data. Saturn’s rings are an ideal nearby location to study an astrophysical disk in real time by the in-situ space craft Cassini. Thus, we are able to test some of our theoretical ideas of planet and moon formation in this local laboratory.  One of the most exciting and dynamic places in the Solar System is the narrow F ring at the edge of the main rings. Here a nearby moon Prometheus regularly and destructively interacts with the F ring.


The unique location (close to Saturn’s Roche Limit) and the destructive tendencies of  moon closest moon lead to clumps and small moonlets being formed and destroyed on an hourly basis.


By comparing images taken by the Cassini spacecraft (a) orbiting Saturn with our models (b) we can start to understand some of the physics of what is happening. The density map from our models match very well with the changes in surface brightness seen in the real F ring. Essentially it shows that Prometheus is capable of significantly increasing the local density in the F ring in just a matter of hours.




Further analysis then shows that net rotations in the particle flow occur during such encounters. This can have important consequences for planet formation in larger disks were rotational flows or vortices are thought to overcome some shortfalls in planet formation time scales.


Currently only one exoplanet has been discovered with ring around it. J1407b is a large gas giant with a ring system 200 times larger than Saturn’s. Just like Saturn’s rings, gaps exist in the J1407b ring system. From studies of Saturn’s rings we know that nearby moons gravitational carve out gaps. Therefore, gaps in the ring of J1407b hints towards potential exomoons. As the rate of exoplanets rapidly increases we are likely to discover many more exorings like the one around J1407b. I am interested in studying such rings around extrasolar planets in this relatively new area of science.

Detecting Gravitational Waves With Planetary Rings

Gravitational waves oscillate in gravitational potential energy but pass through most matter completely unnoticed. However, orbital resonances can occur for very long wavelength gravitational waves with particles in planetary rings. The small amplitudes of these waves then become amplified in the orbits of ring particles. Work with Prof Feo Kusmartsev aims to show that gravitational waves can reveal themselves when passing through certain systems.


Sutton, P.J., 2018. On the tidal environment of an outwardly migrating F ring. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society478(1), pp.416-424.

Gillman, M.P., Erenler, H.E. and Sutton, P.J., 2018. Mapping the location of terrestrial impacts and extinctions onto the spiral arm structure of the Milky Way. International Journal of Astrobiology, pp.1-6.

Sutton, P.J. and Kusmartsev, F.V., 2016. Prometheus induced vorticity in Saturn’s F ring. Earth, Moon, and Planets118(2-3), pp.117-131.

Sutton, P.J. and Kusmartsev, F.V., 2014. A detailed numerical analysis of asymmetrical density distribution in Saturn’s F ring during an encounter with Prometheus. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society439(2), pp.1313-1325.

Sutton, P.J. and Kusmartsev, F.V., 2013. Gravitational vortices and clump formation in Saturn’s F ring during an encounter with Prometheus. Scientific reports3, p.1276.

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