Astronomy Observation and Theory Consolidated Grant 2012

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Institute of Astronomy


This proposal is for a single Consolidated Grant to support the
majority of research in Theoretical and Observational Astrophysics at
the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) in Cambridge. The new grant subsumes
research activity previously supported by STFC under the three generic
themes: "Theory", "X-ray Astrophysics" and "Galaxy Formation and

The theoretical research profile includes work to understand the
origin of the Universe itself. Members of the IoA are play a leading
role in the European Space Agency Planck mission, and will lead a
definitive determination of the parameters that both define the
geometry of the Universe and quantify the age, size, dark matter, dark
energy and baryonic content. The research links to one of the key
goals in astrophysics: constraining the properties of the dark matter
and dark energy content of the Universe.

The Universe today is filled with galaxies, of which our own Milky Way
is a not atypical example. A full understanding of galaxy formation
and evolution requires multiple lines of attack. Observations of the
resolved stellar populations in the Milky Way and its Local Group
companions provide a detailed fossil record of the dynamical
assemblies of the galaxies, the formation of stars, and the buildup of
heavy elements over a wide range of mass scales and initial
conditions. At the other end of the scale, observations of distant
galaxies spanning lookback times of up to 12 Gyr provide direct
measurements of the evolution of galaxy populations and the buildup of
stars and metals with cosmic time. Finally, measurements of the
large-scale star formation and abundance properties of nearby galaxies
form a vital astrophysical bridge between the studies of nearby
resolved stellar populations and the distant high-redshift
investigations, by allowing us to characterise the evolutionary
properties of the Hubble sequence and the complex "gastrophysical"
processes that regulate the accretion of gas and the formation of
stars in galaxies.

It is now recognised that there is an intimate link between the
evolution of galaxies and the origin and properties of super-massive
black holes, which reside at the centre of the Milky Way and other
galaxies. The regions close to black holes allow the exploration of
physics at the extremes. The formation and properties of super-massive
black holes and their relation to the galaxies in which they reside is
a research theme that involves theory, X-ray astrophysics and
observational programmes in the grant. The X-ray based research will
measure the spin of both the super-massive black holes, which power
the enormous energy emissions from quasars, and the stellar-mass black
holes in binary star systems. This work, based on spectroscopy of
relativistically-broadened iron lines, will also provide insights into
the accretion phenomena that power the systems.

Within galaxies, the grant focuses on star formation, from the giant
molecular clouds which give birth to stars, down to the more detailed
investigations of the processes that lead to the formation of stars
and star clusters within these molecular clouds. The investigations
will combine state-of-the-art numerical simulations with analytical
theory and a new set of multi-wavelength observations of nearby
galaxies being obtained with the Herschel and Spitzer space
observatories under IoA leadership.

The quest to study planetary systems around stars and their formation
is another key goal. Research activity in the grant extends from
searches for the elusive brown-dwarf companions to normal hot stars
through to theoretical work that concentrates on the properties of
debris discs, discs of asteroids, cometary objects, and dust
surrounding stars. A feature of the research is the investigation of
debris discs surrounding both stars on the main sequence (where they
spend the majority of their lives) and in the final stages of their

Planned Impact

The University of Cambridge has one of the most successful programmes for encouraging knowledge transfer and resulting societal impact between University departments and industry both in the UK and elsewhere. Postdoctoral staff employed on the grant have access to and are encouraged to undertake a full range of career development courses, organised by the University, which aid them in identifying and better transferring their applicable skills more widely. These skills include advanced statistical, computational and modelling techniques, systems design, image analysis, data handling, communication of science.

The IoA's approach to the search for impact opportunities has been guided by the mechanisms the University has in place to facilitate this. Specifically, it is now involved in the transfer of a range of techniques directly or indirectly developed to support its research. The further research breakthroughs expected though the activities supported by this grant over the period 2013-2016 will in turn drive the development of techniques and processes of wider applicability.

For instance the Planck research [3.1] involves the development of advanced modelling techniques which are now actively being applied to development of optics through a small spin out enterprise. Visualisation techniques developed to support the analysis of X-ray data [3.8] have led to the development and open source release to the wider community of a fully featured interactive plotting package].

The cutting edge IoA research themes help to inform and set vigorous demands on the processing and image analysis software developed more widely in the ioA, for instance in the IoA's Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit. These analysis techniques in turn, have been found to be extremely powerful when utilised in other settings, for instance image analysis and data handling systems applied to the medical domain. Thus CASU recently had a one year Knowledge Exchange MRC grant to apply these techniques to the analysis of tissue micro array (TMA) data supporting oncological research programmes at Cancer Research UK's, Cambridge Research Institute (CRI). This work attracting considerable external attention (e.g. The PathGrid system formed the centrepiece of an extended xsnews feature in the Science special issue 'Dealing with Data' (vol 331, Feb 12, 2011).).

Published results demonstrate the effectiveness of the analysis applied to the measurement of ER protein expression in TMA data. With co-workers in the CR-UK, The University of Cambridge Dept of Oncology, Strangeways Laboratory, and the Department of Histopathology at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, the latest application of PathGrid is to a significant large scale study - with a dataset of over 2400 tumours. Future beneficiaries include BBSRC's Institute of Food Health. CASU are initiating validation pilots with the Dept of Pathology at Addenbrooke's NHS hospital, aiming to deploy the PathGrid processing system in the Addenbrooke's clinical setting of high throughput analysis of routine breast cancer pathology tests. PathGrid has the potential to increase the effectiveness of clinical health care and enhance the quality of life of those with cancer, through improved outcomes through better targeted therapeutic treatments.

The IoA has a powerful 'understanding of science' programme. The outreach programme engages teachers, who in turn input IoA research ideas into their primary and secondary school curricula. It highlights women in science, providing role models to inspire future researchers The public observing programme reaches many thousands of people, inspiring them to make their own discoveries of the night sky. The IoA 'Artist in Residence' generates powerful multi-media material placing astrophysical science in the wider cultural context. Taken together IoA science, through its outreach, directly impacts in an uptake of young people entering science and public interest in science.


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Ade PA (2015) Joint analysis of BICEP2/keck array and Planck Data. in Physical review letters

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Agnello A (2015) Discovery of two gravitationally lensed quasars in the Dark Energy Survey in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Allen J (2013) Classification and analysis of emission-line galaxies using mean field independent component analysis in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Alston W (2014) Detection of a QPO in five XMM-Newton observations of RE J1034+396 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters

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Anguiano B (2015) Identification of globular cluster stars in RAVE data - I. Application to stellar parameter calibration in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Anguiano B. (2016) Identification of Globular Cluster Stars in RAVE data II: Extended tidal debris around NGC 3201 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society