Astrophysics at St Andrews: 2012-2014

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Physics and Astronomy


The St Andrews astronomy group is interested in questions of origins: where do galaxies, stars and planets come from, and what fundamental physics explains their formation? We are world leaders in solving intricate mathematical problems, and we use novel methods such as observations at very high precision and simulations with super-computers. We are joined by other groups across Scotland via the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA), and internationally, in searching for hot and cool Earth-sized planets, homing in on habitable worlds where life could exist.

Our research spans a wide range of size scales, from discovering planetary systems around stars a few light years away to measuring the force of gravity acting on the whole universe. We discover `hot Jupiters' by using robotic wide-angle cameras that monitor thousands of stars to find those that briefly dim each time an orbiting planet passes in front of its parent star. We discover cooler and smaller more Earth-like planets, using robotic telescopes to watch gravitational lenses, exploiting Einstein's prediction that a planet drifting across the sightline to a distant background star bends its light. We are learning about how planets form by looking at the radiation from dust grains and pebbles, which are either in the process of forming planets or, like our comets, remnants of the planet forming process.

Young stars have strong magnetic fields that interact with orbiting planets and their own magnetic fields. We are studying the signatures of this interaction, which will help us to understand how planets form and evolve. We are investigating the physics of mineral clouds and lightning in atmospheres of cool brown dwarf stars and extrasolar planets. These processes alter our view of planetary systems and will help us understand dust and lightning in volcanic eruptions on Earth. We are using observations and numerical simulations to study how stars form in galaxies and how feedback from young stars drives a dynamic, bubbling interstellar medium, the dusty gas from which new stars are born. We include energetic supernova explosions when massive stars die and the ionising radiation from massive stars that heats the gas in the galaxy to temperatures above than 10,000 degrees Centigrade.

On cosmological scales, we are conducting a survey of 350,000 galaxies to study how their structure emerges. We will learn how galaxies form into their characteristic shapes of flat discs, spiral arms and central bulges. This will help us to understand more exotic phenomena such as the central engines of galaxies, the supermassive black holes that lurk in their central regions, with the aim of understanding how they grow. We are studying how gravity works on the scale of galaxies and the universe. Stars orbit in galaxies so fast that there does not appear to be enough mass to hold the galaxies together. On larger scales, the expansion of the universe itself is accelerating. These puzzles tell us that although we understand gravity on small scales, well enough to send space probes to other planets, it may be different on the larger scales of galaxies and beyond. We are studying alternatives to current ideas of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, comparing our predictions with observations to test how gravity works.

Thus we address key questions in the Science Roadmap: What are the laws of physics in extreme conditions? How do galaxies, stars and planets form and evolve? Are we alone in the Universe? Our science programme exploits major international and space observatories such as ASKAP, eMERLIN, Herschel, Kepler, Spitzer, HST, future facilities including ALMA, JWST, SKA, and PLATO.

Planned Impact

Our research creates three major kinds of impact, related to
(1) the insatiable public interest in the fundamental questions behind our existence that are being addressed,
(2) the practical implications for understanding atmospheric processes,
(3) the universality of techniques pioneered by our cutting-edge scientific endeavour.

The widespread public fascination about objects in the sky is rooted in astronomy providing context to life on Earth. Our research on extra-solar planets, astrobiology, formation processes, and large-scale forces provides answers that cannot be found on our home planet. We thereby directly affect the culture of our society, using the media, museums, or other outreach organisations as intermediaries to stipulate members of various age groups to wonder, explore and investigate. Moreover, beyond any other scientific discipline, we inspire young people and motivate more of them to pursue careers in STEM subjects, leading to them acquiring skills that are essential for safeguarding the economic competitiveness of the UK.

Our research work and its consequences are widely and frequently presented in the national and world-wide media, both as news reports and features in major newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV stations, with several of our PIs having gained a substantial reputation. We moreover address the wide general public by means of exhibits as well as documentary films, having worked with the Dundee Science Centre, the American Museum of Natural
History, the National Museum of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and the Royal Society for their Summer Science Exhibition. A new University development will enable us to establish a writer-in-residence programme, public fora, and a permanent exhibition. Moreover, with a local secondary school moving right next to our campus, we will cascade down our unique student experience, and in particular open their minds by providing live access to remotely-controlled telescopes during daytime hours. By providing live data from research projects,
exploiting electronic media, and developing intelligent citizen science projects, we engage a world-wide society in science and contribute to a cultural approach that manifests the role of science as an integral part of society.

The study of dust and cloud formation processes in stellar and planetary atmospheres is core to exploiting new opportunities to extend comparative planetology beyond the Solar system, and ultimately learn more about
planet Earth and processes in its atmosphere. Potential end applications include dust charging on Mars as a hazard for future explorations, the safety of airports near volcanoes, the inverse problem of eliminating charged dust that contaminates plasma-processing devices, or fusion reactor safety. All of these are not only of substantial commercial value, but the safety aspects are of major importance for our quality of life.

The transfer of gained technical expertise from our research into other areas as well as the generalisation of the problems we are working on and the application of obtained solutions in different contexts is facilitated by efficient informal networks within the University, as recent examples of interaction with Marine Biology and Computer Science demonstrate. The application of astronomical techniques can be taken further into the commercial or medical sectors. Most notably, we established a cooperation with Ninewells Hospital in Dundee on photodynamic therapy for the treatment of skin cancer, using simulations of light propagation through human tissue and fluorescence based on radiation transfer codes that were originally written for astronomical scenarios.


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Aarnio A (2012) Mechanical equilibrium of hot, large-scale magnetic loops on T Tauri stars TTS magnetic loops in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Alvarado-Gómez J (2015) Activity and magnetic field structure of the Sun-like planet-hosting star HD 1237 in Astronomy & Astrophysics

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Anderson D (2013) Thermal emission at 3.6-8 µm from WASP-19b: a hot Jupiter without a stratosphere orbiting an active star in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Description We carried out a broad range of astrophysics research ranging from extrasolar planet discovery to studies of star formation and galaxy evolution to the nature of dark matter and dark energy.
Exploitation Route Our research findings are published in refereed journals with open access. They are available for anyone to access and make use of.
Sectors Education

Description Our findings have been published in refereed journals from which they are available for use by any and all interested parties.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural

Title Data underpinning - The Sun as a planet-host star: Proxies from SDO images for HARPS radial-velocity variations 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Title RV curves of WASP-16, 25 and 31 (Brown+, 2012) 
Description RV data for all three planetary systems were obtained using the CORALIEhigh-precision echelle spectrograph, mounted on the Swiss 1.2-m Eulertelescope, and with the HARPS high-precision echelle spectrograph mounted on the 3.6-m European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescope at LaSilla. (8 data files). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact TBC