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Planetary Science Laboratory

Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Department of Physics and Astronomy

University of Rochester



I am a planetary scientist and an assistant professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (primary), Physics and Astronomy (secondary), Laboratory for Laser Energetics (secondary) at the University of Rochester.

We are studying origin and evolution of planets and moons in the solar system and beyond.


Miki Nakajima
Assistant Professor


Graduate Students


Scott D. Hull

The Moon likely formed from the gravitational collapse of a dust and vapor disk created by a "giant impact" event in which the Earth and a Mars-sized body collided. I use smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH) simulations to model real-time giant impact events with the Earth, and then assess both the dynamics and the geochemical outcomes of the model. These studies have implications for understanding the energies and dynamics required to form the observable Earth-Moon system and beyond. 

Sarah Harter 

I use shock compression experiments at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) to recreate these high density and pressure environments to be recreate planetary interior conditions.  From these calculations, I would also like to understand how planetary magnetic fields evolve over time in Earth and other planets in the solar system and beyond. 


I use a shock physics code called iSALE (impact Simplified Arbitrary Lagrangian Eulerian) to computationally recreate the Sudbury basin crater. Understanding Sudbury's formation channel enhances our knowledge of geology as a result of catastrophic event which in turn constrains our current interpretation of Earth's formation. My goal is to progress from impact analysis and apply it to research in planetary crustal formation and evolution.

Nicolas Litza


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I am a first-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and a former undergraduate at the University of Rochester. I have a broad range of interests in astrophysics and planetary science, and my work with Professor Nakajima was recreating the Vredefort impact, Earth’s largest verified impact crater, using iSALE simulations and comparing those results to geophysical evidence. My PhD work is focused on exoplanets, particularly atmospheres and astrobiology.


I was an undergrad at the University of Rochester, majoring in Physics and Astronomy. I have been working on the simulation of large impact events, specifically the Imbrium Basin,  using iSALE shock code. Analysis of the ejecta curtains created from each event yields pressure and temperature distributions that can be related to physical evidence.

Undergraduate Students

Arnav Sharma



Natalie Allen (JHU)


Soren Helhoski (Brown U.)



Angel Paz


Postdoctoral Scholars

Victor Lherm



My research interests lie primarily in the formation and evolution of planetary interiors using experimental, numerical and analytical methods in fluid dynamics. My research is dealing with heat and chemical partitioning between metal and silicates during the formation of terrestrial planets. I mainly focus on mixing processes responsible for metal-silicate equilibration in early magma oceans, both during planetary impacts and in the following post-impact flow. I am also interested in the origin of the early Earth magnetic field, investigating in particular dynamo simulations in an early magma ocean.


Ian Szumila


I am interested in the impact process and shocked minerals especially zircon and its high pressure polymorph, reidite. My research involves studying how the impact process affects microstructural and geochemical signatures in minerals from target rock or produced in a melt sheet. By applying machine learning techniques to geochemical datasets, I can learn and identify new patterns in mineral trace element geochemistry. Experimental work to understand isotope fractionations driven by diffusion, shock, or other processes and the geochemical insights provided is another theme of my research. (Co-Mentoring with Prof. Dustin Trail)


Jeremy Atkins Undergraduate student, 2018 -- 2021
Pham Nguyen Graduate student, 2019 -- 2020
Tyler Labree REU Summer student, 2019



Physics of Planetary Interiors (2019, 2020, 2022)  
Geodynamics (2019, 2021)
Designing your space mission (2020, 2021) 


moon formation

According to the canonical model, the proto-Earth was hit by a Mars-sized object approximately 4.5 billion years ago. The movie below shows entropy of the mantle (the extent of shock heating) in the red-yellow colors and iron core in grey. We developed a smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH) code from the ground up where a fluid is expressed as a collection of spherical particles.

Feel free to download the movie from here: [canonical - entropy] 

Please cite Nakajima and Stevenson (2014, 2015).

It may take a few seconds to load the movies ... please stay patient!

Canonical Moon-forming impact

Canonical Moon-forming impact

Canonical Moon-forming impact
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