Astronomy Research at Queen Mary 2012-2015

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

Abstract

Our programme of research in Astronomy comprises projects spanning the breadth of the subject. We will study aspects of the solar system such as Saturn's ring system, the formation of the terrestrial planets, particle acceleration in the solar corona and turbulence in the solar wind. Although rooted in the solar system, the results of these projects will be relevant for many other astrophysical environments. We will study aspects of extra-solar planets, including formation and atmospheres. We will carry out projects to study cosmology and the early history of the Universe. Although the majority of our projects are theoretical, we will carry out observational projects such as the VISTA surveys. The large range of research areas provides a stimulating environment which encourages a view of Astronomy as the study of all of the Universe and its history.

We now know of many planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. How these extra-solar planets and those in our Solar System formed is a major unsolved question. Planets form in the gas-dust discs observed around young stars. We will use sophisticated computer simulations to model these discs, and examine the evolution of embedded planetesimals and planets. We will study collisions between planetesimals; migration of planets; gas accretion and gap formation in the disc by forming giant planets. We will examine the formation of rocky terrestrial planets using simulation codes which model planetary collisions. We will also examine atmospheric dynamics in short-period planets. Their proximity to the star generates intense heating and complex flow patterns which may be used to interpret observations of these hot planets.

The Cassini space mission has provided a wealth of images of the rings of Saturn. We will study the mechanism by which gravitational instability in a ring can be induced by a passing moon using the F ring-Prometheus system as a paradigm. We can model this in numerical simulations and test our results by comparison with actual rings and accompanying moonlets seen in Cassini data. The lifetime of Saturn's rings is an unsolved problem. The current best estimate suggests that the rings can only survive for ~400My, or <10% of the age of the solar system. We intend to investigate a possible means of "locking" the ring system using a resonance with a more massive, exterior moon such as Mimas. We will also provide the Rosetta CONSERT team with the latest information on Jupiter family comets.

The corona is the upper layer of the Sun's atmosphere and the source of the solar wind, the plasma which flows out through the solar system. Understanding how the solar wind stays hot is a key problem and we will study the role of plasma turbulence and how it dissipates at the smallest kinetic scales. The solar corona is also a source of energetic particles, and explaining how electrons and ions are accelerated in flares is a long-standing problem. We will study acceleration processes which use the interaction of waves (dispersive Alfven waves) and particles, based on realistic inhomogeneous plasma configurations. All these studies will use large-scale, self-consistent plasma simulations.

Cosmology has been transformed in recent years from a data poor to a very data rich area. Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) experiments and Large Scale Structure surveys have contributed to this transformation, challenging theoretical cosmologists to explain these data sets. We will work on four different but complementary projects. We will extend cosmological perturbation theory beyond linear order and apply it to new phenomena and observables. Our study of inflationary cosmology focuses on new multi-field models of the early universe and their observational consequences. We will investigate black holes as a probe of cosmology and particle physics, and study the so-called surfing effect in cosmology to obtain constraints on parity violation using the polarisation of the CMB.

Planned Impact

Outreach
Astronomy, with the combination of awe-inspiring images (eg VISTA images at eso.org) and the desire to explain how the Universe works, has always excited a deep interest in the general public. Astronomy and space science are often quoted by students as a motivation to continue studying science to university level. The wide ranging programme of proposed Astronomy research will be a basis for building on the Astronomy Unit's existing programme of outreach activities.
We will reach audiences of schools and the general public by websites, talks, exhibitions, outreach events, popular science articles and media appearances.

The Astronomy Unit has a long tradition of outreach activities, supported by the University with a Outreach Manager for Physics and Mathematics. We have been involved in the following:
* Week-long residential Astrophysics course for teachers covering the topic of Astrophysics sponsored by Goldsmiths' Company
www.maths.qmul.ac.uk/home/for-schools-colleges/goldsmiths-company-mathematics-course-for-teachers
* Cassini Scientist for a Day competition for 11-18 year olds run in conjunction with NASA. Students submit essays arguing for targets to be imaged by the Cassini spacecraft. The Astronomy Unit runs the UK and Ireland competition. www.maths.qmul.ac.uk/schools/cassini
* Cosmic Futures competition for 8-18 year olds run in conjunction with the Metro newspaper and the UK Space Agency. Students are tasked with producing a poster or essay describing the work of the UK Space Agency. Winners contribute to an astronomy magazine to be distributed nationally. This has evolved from our award-winning Media Space programme which has produced magazines on the topics of human spaceflight, Saturn, Jupiter and space careers. These were written and designed by 15-16 year olds from local schools in Tower Hamlets. For details on Cosmic Futures: www.cosmonline.co.uk/cosmic-futures. Details on Media Space: www.maths.qmul.ac.uk/schools/mediaspace
* Astrophysics Taster Course: aimed at A-level students, this one day course offers an insight into what it's like to study the subject at university. Lectures from the Astronomy Unit are a mixture of research and example subject lectures.
* Our Space resources: Space Tourist Richard Garriott spent 10 days on the International Space Station in 2008. Whilst he was there he filmed many science demonstrations. We were involved in collating the materials and resources and presenting them on an accessible site where films, images and sound clips can be downloaded for use. www.our-space.org Lesson plans and other resources for teachers are currently being prepared.
* Astronomy Unit postgraduate students have contributed to the schools programme at the Royal Observatory Greenwich by running workshops for visiting school groups.
* Physics Academy: we hold a week-long summer school for A-level students. They attend one day of lectures and then work on onespecific area in-depth. The Astronomy Unit offers a project for the students to follow and in 2010 this was on solar physics.
* Members of the Astronomy Unit deliver talks and workshops on their research for schools colleges and astronomy societies.

Knowledge Exchange
The proposed research is mostly of a theoretical nature in Astronomy, and not directly exploitable. However within the programme there are some suitable areas (eg plasma physics, computational modelling) for which we remain alert to opportunities for exploitation using the KE infrastructure in Queen Mary.
We will explore and participate in opportunities in interdisciplinary research. QM is likely to develop a focus on simulation within the Science & Engineering faculty and we will contribute expertise on HPC computer modelling.
Our research programme produces postdoctoral staff and postgraduate students with high level scientific and research skills contributing to the academic and industrial base. Often these move into areas other that Astronomy.

Publications

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