Astronomy Research at Queen Mary

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

Abstract

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 extrasolar
planets. 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.
iv) We will use Einstein's theory of gravity to make detailed predictions about the distribution
of matter in the Universe, and how this matter distribution appears to an observer on Earth.
These predictions will be compared with observational data to test Einstein's gravity on the
largest scales.
v) We will use the access that we have to the next generation of infrared spectrographs to
look for low mass planets around nearby low mass stars, using measurements of the star's
radial velocity as it orbits around the system centre of mass. Low mass stars are the optimal
targets for finding low mass planets in their habitable zone, so this may be an efficient method
of finding the first habitable earth-like planets. We will also use these spectrographs to look
for the signatures of molecules in planet atmospheres.
vi) 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 10. 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.

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, going into schools to give talks and provide hands-on activities.
A recent initiative is a summer school for school students to learn about computer
coding while undertaking hands-on analysis of astronomical data. 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.

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.

Publications


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