An Astrophysics Consolidated Grant for the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute

Lead Research Organisation: University of Central Lancashire
Department Name: Jeremiah Horrocks Institute


The astrophysics group at the University of Central Lancashire carries out research in many different areas, including, solar physics, stellar variability, and galaxy formation.

This grant requests resources to support our core activities, including the exploitation of data from the latest ground- and space-based observatories, and to carry out state-of-the-art simulations of the formation of star clusters and galaxies.

The key areas covered by the grant are:
Solar physics - where space-based observatories such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory, STEREO, and Hinode will be exploited to investigate solar activity and the effect of the Sun on the solar system. This traces the development of magnetic features in the solar atmosphere, their eruption as flares and coronal mass ejections, and the propagation of material as it flows into space. This will be complemented by computer modelling of the magnetic processes that drive solar activity and its impact in the heliosphere.

Stellar variability - where international observatories such as Kepler, SALT, ALMA, and SOFIA will be used to study different types of variable and eruptive stars. Different variable stars will be investigated using asteroseismology, where the pulsations of stars over time are used to probe the dynamics and structure. Ejecta from evolved eruptive variable stars will be probed in the micron to millimetre range to determine the ejecta composition and understand dust formation.

Formation of star clusters and galaxies - where large supercomputers will be used to simulate the formation and evolution of star clusters and galaxies, including the Milky Way, using suites of numerical codes developed in-house and with close collaborators.

Structure and dynamics of galaxies - where observational and theoretical tools are combined to probe the behaviour of galaxies and phenomena that occur within them. This ranges from measurement of the star formation rate and its relation to dark matter content, to simulations of astrophysical jets, and the structure of large quasar groups.

Exploiting the varied expertise of the astrophysics group is an extensive outreach programme which utilises our purpose-built observatory. The observatory is already extensively used for visiting groups from schools and the general public, and the site will be developed to enhance its potential for public engagement. This programme will be developed to promote engagement with new audiences.

Planned Impact

Our research impact outside the discipline has two legs - public engagement with people of all ages through a multi-level programme of activities, and knowledge exchange in collaboration with other academic disciplines and via that with industry. Our public engagement activities reach people of all ages, from young children to the oldest members of our community. In addition we engage at a number of levels, from public talks to large audiences, through long-term collaborations with local schools and colleges, bespoke activities at the University to curriculum enhancement events with teachers. Our knowledge exchange benefits from the research group being within the School of Computing, Engineering & Physical Sciences enabling easy collaboration with a range of disciplines; we are developing links with those elsewhere in the University, including within academic schools and support services. We highlight the novel aspects of our offering here, which will develop during the grant.

Alston Observatory is a key element of our public engagement activities. Over the last two years we have replaced the planetarium facility with a £15,000 investment, and refurbished the existing teaching room. This has enabled us to support a range of new activities, including educational visits from primary and secondary schools, observing events for the general public and astronomy outreach for community groups. We have piloted curriculum enhancement events for teachers. We are currently planning to expand the capacity, breadth of the astronomy covered and added science activities around biology and chemistry. Theme C in our application gives more detail on this, and requests staff support for the development, which will be matched in funding from UCLan and appropriate sponsorship.

We support direct engagement with school students via a number of routes. Each year 5-10 students take part in a variety of activities embedded within the research group, varying from work experience to Nuffield bursary projects. We work in local schools and colleges, and have an ongoing collaboration with the Ogden Trust, primarily working with them to support their Preston Science Partnership and the West Lakes Science Consortium. This provides some enabling funds and facilitation to work on collaborative projects in improving students' progression to Higher Education, focusing in the physics subject area in particular. This provides us with a unique understanding of the needs of the student communities, which we also apply more widely in other schools and colleges, for example with the University-sponsored West Lakes Academy. As well as these activities at secondary level, we engage with primary schools, for example working with Beauty in the Universe, a not-for-profit enterprise in East Lancashire. This enterprise was established by a UCLan graduate with support from our business incubation unit and astronomy staff, and we seek to support their expansion as it is clear that they could have a significant impact on a number of under-privileged communities in a way that is self-sustaining.

Knowledge exchange is always a little more challenging for astrophysics groups. Prime amongst our activities is an FP7 EU funded project Coronal Mass Ejections and Solar Energetic Particles: Forecasting the Space Weather Impact. This will produce a European Space Weather alert system to forecast energetic particle radiation storms and geomagnetic storms, which can affect satellites, GPS, power lines and communications, and is a direct result of our solar physics research. We are working within a unique NASA Space Act agreement to provide instrument software, utilising relevant skills amongst the engineering and computing staff within the School. This is funded by the University, anticipating broader knowledge exchange opportunities in the future. Other actives are currently at a smaller scale but span a range from computer games to mass data analysis.


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