Astronomy Research at Queen Mary 2015-2018

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: Astronomy Unit


We propose to undertake the following research projects.
i) We will use supercomputer simulations to model the gas discs that orbit young stars,
which are believed to be the sites of planet formation.
The aim is to examine the behaviour of the gas as it orbits around the star, and to
examine how planets that form in these discs interact with them. This interaction
may explain the fact that many of the extrasolar planets that have been discovered
outside of our solar system orbit close to their host stars.
ii) We will use supercomputer simulations to model the atmospheres of giant planets
in our solar system and in extrasolar systems. These atmospheres display interesting
patterns of gas flow, and extrasolar planets often orbit close to their stars and so are
strongly heated on one side, causing strong winds to arise. The simulations will help
us better understand these atmospheres.
iii) Using mathematical representations of the laws of physics, we will produce new models
for the early evolution of the Universe, shortly after the big-bang, during which time it
underwent very rapid expansion known as "inflation". The models will be compared with
observations of the Universe to see which ones are compatible with the data. We will also
use mathematical models to examine the late evolution of the Universe to see if there are
natural explanations for the observed fact that the Universe's rate of expansion is increasing.
In particular, these models will examine whether or not the concept of "dark energy" is
required to explain this accelerated expansion.
iv) We will use computer simulations and mathematical theory to examine the formation of
black holes in the early Universe and also supermassive binary black holes that are observed
at the centres of galaxies.
v) We will use an observational survey of the Universe being undertaken by the VISTA
telescope to search for very distant quasars - galaxies that have supermassive black holes
at their centres, and which were born when the Universe was less than 10% of its
current age. We have already discovered the 2nd, 3rd and 4th most distant quasars that
are known, and the aim is to increase this number to about 14. We will then be able
to estimate of how many quasars there were when the Universe was very young,
and we will be able to examine the black holes and the structures of their galaxies.
vi) We will use supercomputer simulations to examine the evolution of the solar wind - the
stream of charged particles that is constantly flowing from the Sun into our solar system.
In particular, we will examine why this wind develops turbulence as it flows through interplanetary
space, and how this turbulence heats the solar wind.
vii) We will use supercomputer simulations to examine the low density but very high temperature
gas that lies above the Sun's surface - the solar corona. In particular, we want to understand whether
or not magnetic fields that pop up out of the Sun in regions called Active Regions can contribute
to the heating of the solar corona in a significant way.
viii) We will analyse images from the Cassini spacecraft that is currently orbiting Saturn, to
examine how Saturn's moons interact with and disturb Saturn's system of rings. We are
particularly interested in the F ring which lies near the outer edge of the ring system, and is
regularly disturbed by two satellites, Prometheus and Pandora. We will use computer simulations
to explain the dynamics of this system.
ix) We will attempt to understand more about the formation of the planet Mars. It is believed
that the four inner planets of our solar system formed from collisions between smaller bodies
that built the planets, and we will use computer simulations to examine this process. We will
examine whether a collision can explain why Mars has a crust that is thicker in the southern
hemisphere than in the north, and we will examine the formation of Mars' m

Planned Impact

The research proposed in this application is largely concerned with basic
scientific inquiry, and so in general it will not have high potential for
immediate economic or real world impact. The primary impact of the research
will be in the cultural sphere, as the research will increase the sum total of
human knowledge about the Universe and its constituents, and will therefore
enhance the sense of wonder about the world that we live in for the general public.
Our research in areas such as cosmology, extrasolar planets, quasars, black holes,
the Saturn system, space weather, and the origin of the Solar System all have
strong public appeal and interest.

The Astronomy Unit has an active programme of public engagement and
schools outreach, both to inform and engage the general public about our
research, and to also inspire school pupils to become interested in science
and to take STEM subjects post-GCSE. These engagement programmes
include giving public talks, having open days and evenings at the university
(e.g. Stargazing Live! events etc), and a range of media work that includes
TV and radio interviews. Our schools outreach programmes include summer schools,
essay writing competitions (i.e. Cassini Scientist for a Day), going into schools
to give talks and provide hands-on activities. We also run a week long Astrophysics
Summer School for secondary school teachers to inspire and assist them in teaching
their pupils about our astronomy research. In doing this we are explicitly supporting
the STEM agenda through our research, which is a key government policy for building
long term economic growth.

Our proposed programme of research includes work on the solar wind and the energetics
of the solar corona, and this research relates directly to Space Weather. As such, there
may be real world applications of this research in predicting coronal mass ejections and
their impacts on human activities such as satellite protection, human spaceflight etc. This
is a motivating factor in pursuing this research, and the Astronomy Unit will be alert to any
opportunities for finding real world applications of this research.

Other areas of our research that may have applications outside of the academic sphere
include high performance computing and the development of advanced computer codes
and algorithms, and in advanced techniques in data analysis. Again, we will be alert to any
opportunities that may arise in finding real world or commercial applications of this work.

Finally, the posdoctoral staff that we will employ on the grant will receive training and
experience in a variety of skills that will be of great benefit to the wider economy if
they at some stage leave academia and work in industry or the commercial sector.
These skills include advanced computing and data analysis, independent problem
solving, project management, report writing through authorship of scientific
publications, and presentation skills obtained from conference attendance etc.


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Agnor Craig B. (2016) On the Nature and Timing of Giant Planet Migration in the Solar System in AAS/Division of Dynamical Astronomy Meeting
Attree Nicholas Oliver (2016) Collisional Features in Saturn's F Ring in AAS/Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting Abstracts
Brinch Christian (2016) Misaligned Disks in the Binary Protostar IRS 43 in The Astrophysical Journal
Camporeale Enrico (2016) Comparison of linear modes in kinetic plasma models in ArXiv e-prints
Description The discovery and characterisation of a planet around Proxima Centauri has provided many opportunities for public engagement.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal