Astronomy and Astrophysics at Edinburgh

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Physics and Astronomy


An astonishing feature of modern astrophysical research is that we have in principle a chain of explanation that stretches from processes on cosmological scales of billions of light years, down to the creation of stars, planets around the stars and life on the planets. In a sense, this process is almost a closed loop: the early universe was once of subnuclear scale, so that quantum mechanical uncertainty is bound to seed fluctuations in density, which eventually collapse under gravity to make astronomical structures. This is the same physics of the very small that governs the formation of the atoms out of which we are all made.

But unanswered questions abound at all stages of this process. Our theories of the early universe and explanations of its current expansion rest on the concept that empty space can have weight: the so-called "dark energy". We need to study its properties and understand its origin. In so doing, we often assume that Einstein's relativity describes gravity correctly, but can we test this? If the standard theory is correct, dark matter is required, and we are driven to follow the processes by which it clumps, and by which the gas within these clumps evolves, eventally forming stars. New large telescopes on the ground, together with the Hubble Space Telescope, allow us to see this process in action and compare with computer simulations. Nearer to home, we can dissect galaxies such as our own Milky Way into individual stars, for the most detailed view of how they were assembled. And finally we can study how planets arise around these stars, both from new instruments that can measure the presence of "exoplanets" and by computer simulations of how they may be created. Finally, one can ask how life might arise in these early planetary systems, and how it can survive the hostile conditions of outer space.

Research in astronomy in Edinburgh attacks all these connected questions. Progress is rapid, and our understanding evolves rapidly. Major progress, even if not final answers, can be expected within a few years. This is an exciting time for our understanding of the universe and our place within it.

Planned Impact

The research in this consolidated grant may be expected to have a general impact in three distinct ways:

(1) Impact in the form of developing knowledge for spin-out.

The outstanding example here is Blackford Analysis. This is a spin-out company, formed in 2010, applying algorithms developed in the astronomy research programme (some funded by rolling grant support) at IfA to medical imaging and security sectors. Former post-doc Dr Ben Panter is CEO. Alan Heavens continues to provide technical expertise and is a non-executive director. The programme has used students for consultancy work, and recruited students and postdocs, employing four people in its first year. Other similar cases of algorithm application are under consideration.

(2) Impact in the form of work of common interest with existing industry.

A good example of this is our collaboration with e2v on new-generation CCD detectors. We are developing the camera for NASA/JPL's High Altitude Lensing Observatory (HALO) balloon telescope, and e2v will supply detectors. In return, they will obtain data on detector performance in near-space conditions, which should help them bid for future space contracts with the European Space Agency.

(3) Impact in the form of outreach.

Edinburgh has a long-standing and proud record of achievement in this area, thanks to decades of outstanding work by the Royal Observatory Visitor Centre, jointly funded by the University of Edinburgh and STFC. Within the UK university sector, this programme is unusual in its breadth and scope, extending well beyond the normal expectation of public talks, press releases and media interviews. This is in part because IfA staff, post-docs and students have the opportunity to work collaboratively with Visitor Centre Staff, and also in part due to the unique advantages afforded by the ROE site, with its unusual combination of front-line astronomical research, world-leading instrument/technology development, and astronomical history/heritage. Activities include the annual ROE open days, school visits to ROE, weekly public observing, 'Meet The Astronomer' sessions, school visits (with the portable Starlab planetarium), Andy Lawrence's popular e-Astronomer blog, teacher training (including the development of educational resources for both Primary and Secondary teachers), adult 'continuing-education' certificated evening courses, and the development and operation of the Dark Sky Scotland and (most recently) Dark Sky England programmes. ROE is now also the Scottish centre for the European Space Agency led European Space Eduction Resource Office (ESERO), supporting Space Education throughout Scotland.


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Eardley E (2015) Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA): the galaxy luminosity function within the cosmic web in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Erben T (2013) CFHTLenS: the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Lensing Survey - imaging data and catalogue products in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Fardal M (2013) Inferring the Andromeda Galaxy's mass from its giant southern stream with Bayesian simulation sampling in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Finoguenov A (2015) Ultra-deep catalog of X-ray groups in the Extended Chandra Deep Field South in Astronomy & Astrophysics

Description ROE Visitor Centre 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Multiple Edinburgh researchers regularly give talks that engage with the public, and particularly schools groups, under the auspices of the ROE Visitor Centre. These range from informal "meet the astronomer" sessions to more structured presentations on advances in astronomy.

Evidence of Short-Term Impact is provided by basic numbers, and immediate feedback from questionnaires etc. For example, the annual ROE Open Days attract ~2500 visitors of all ages, while ~6000 school-age children either visit ROE, or receive school visits each year. In addition, more than 50 community Dark Sky events have now been held throughout Scotland, and more than 800 teachers and educators have been trained to run Dark Sky activities. The IfA makes a major contribution towards this direct people contact; for example, in 2010, ten IfA post-graduate students contributed a combined total of over 300 hours to outreach activity. It is also possible to identify clear evidence of Long-Term Impact. For example, over 100 school teachers have attended our Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses, and have been provided with Deep Space Resources (developed as part of the CPD work at ROE) for use in the classroom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2006,2007,2008,2009,2010,2011,2012,2013,2014