Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at the Open University (APSOU)

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Faculty of Sci, Tech, Eng & Maths (STEM)

Abstract

Our research programme, Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at the Open University (APSOU), covers the breadth of cosmic evolution, from the Big Bang to the origin of life on Earth and the possibility of life on Mars. We do this research by observation, laboratory experiments, simulations and modelling. We use purpose-designed laboratories and instruments, and instruments on telescopes and spacecraft to make our observations and measurements. Our group is based in the Department of Physical Sciences at the OU, part of the Research Centre for Physical and Environmental Sciences.
So what are we trying to find out? We have 20 separate projects, some focused on the Solar System, others on stars and galaxies. We already know a lot about how the Solar System came about. The Sun and planets formed from a cloud of dust and gas about 4570 million years ago. The cloud collapsed to a spinning disk and dust and gas spiralled inwards. The core of the disk became hot, forming the Sun, while the leftover dust and gas formed the planets. Our Solar System research seeks to understand how it then evolved, eventually allowing life to arise. We will study certain aspects of Solar System history in detail - what was the original dust made from that produced comets? What types of organic compounds were present? How have they been changed by collisions and radiation from the Sun and other stars? How has the ice been altered? We want to know about asteroids: what are their shapes, spin rates, and physical structures, how do they evolve? How did the Moon form, and how much water is locked up in its minerals? How does being so close to the Sun affect Mercury and its surface? All these questions will help us understand the cloud of gas and dust within which the planets formed, and which contained the building blocks of life. Could life have got going on any other planets beside Earth? What about Mars? It is now dry and cold, but its crust was once cut by rivers and glaciers, and ancient water produced minerals identifiable by satellites that orbit Mars. We do have rocks from Mars on Earth - chunks broken from the planet by asteroids hitting Mars' surface. We can analyse the constituent minerals and learn about the water that produced them. We can look for signatures of past biological activity that has altered the rocks, and so explore the history of habitability on Mars.
Our Astronomy research goes beyond the Solar System, to look at processes that cause stars to change as they age. Only recently has it been recognised that so many stars are binary systems, where two or more stars are in close association and affect each others' motion. Such systems affect the way mass and energy is lost from a star, and how they are transferred into the interstellar medium. We will study how 'binarity' affects the behaviour of massive stars (>20 times the mass of the Sun) and low mass stars (< the mass of the Sun), and how star populations change as they age. Studying these effects is vital, because the environment of a star influences any planets that surround it. Many hundreds of planets have been discovered around other stars (exoplanets) and we are working to describe the range of properties of these planets, especially when they are located close to their central star. As well as stars and exoplanets, our astronomy research extends to galaxies from the local to the early Universe. We can use the way that galaxies warp space and time to learn about the dark matter that surrounds them, and the dark energy that drives them apart.
What else do we do? We build instruments for space missions, striving to make them smaller and lighter, and explore how they can be used on Earth for medical or security purposes. One of the most important benefits of our research is that it helps to train and inspire students: the next generation of scientists and engineers. We also enjoy telling as many people as possible about our work, and what we have learned from it about our origin

Planned Impact

The OU has, in its current V-C (Mr Martin Bean), someone with a background in the commercial world. Given the challenges faced by the HE sector as a whole, and the OU in particular (with the arrival of the for-profit distance providers), he was a very welcome appointment. His arrival has not only raised the profile and importance of impact-related activities within the organisation, but he is also presiding over a transformational culture change that has seen the appointment of a number of business-focussed posts. At the same time, the University has been successful in securing one of the eight RCUK Catalyst grants (£300k) to fund a programme of embedding public engagement within our research portfolio. Taken together, at institutional level the support we are able to draw on for our impact activities is tremendous.
Considering the specifics, APSOU covers the breadth of cosmic evolution, from the Big Bang to the origin of the Solar System, the appearance of life on at least one of its planetary constituents, and on to the present day observable world. The proposers are based in the Department of Physical Sciences (DPS), are all part CEPSAR, our research centre for environmental and physical sciences, and can pursue activities within eSTEeM, which is a vehicle for promoting innovation, scholarship and enterprise within the context of open distance teaching.
Beyond the immediate scientific aims of our proposal the impact agenda seeks to engage the following beneficiaries: the public sector, the commercial/private sector, and the wider general public. The first two of these broad categories are addressed through our enterprise program whilst we hope to serve the general public through our outreach activities. In order to facilitate our ambitions DPS has a Business Development Manager, Dr Simeon Barber, who works directly with staff to advise and manage business opportunities, especially our increasing portfolio of contracts with ESA. We also have Dr Ross Burgon, who as awarded an STFC IPPS Fellowship in 2012. He is leading our engagement with the Harwell Campus, and the opportunities offered for partnership with the ISIC/Space Science Catapult. And, of course, outreach/engagement being part of the DNA of the OU, there are many relevant resources at our disposal.
(i) Enterprise: The Pathways to Impact plan includes: (1) development and commercialisation of small-scale analytical instrumentation, with emphasis on applications that require field-portable devices; (2) working with companies from the business sector (mainly in the UK, but also Europe and the US) with the aim of developing spaceflight instrumentation from commercially available equipment; (3) development of novel analytical protocols for applications in areas beyond our research programme; (4) service-oriented activities for outside interests (industry and academia) utilising the instrumentation and equipment suite available; (5) consultancy work for the UK and European space industry, via opportunities afforded by commercial contracts through ESA.
(ii) Public Engagement: The OU has an internationally proven ability to reach out to a wide audience using leading-edge educational technologies and multimedia solutions; astronomy and planetary science are often at the forefront of these activities. Several of the present Co-Is are academic consultants for TV series such as 'Stargazing Live', which attracts audiences of several million; clearly we will continue to exploit opportunities like this as and when they arise. However, it should also be noted that we are, in some circumstances, able to influence future program content. But perhaps the most exciting immediate possibility for outreach revolves around our widening participation agenda, which includes the possibility to showcase our research through OpenLearn and, with the creation of FutureLearn, the chance to produce MOOCs in our subject area.

Publications

10 25 50
publication icon
Alexander C (2018) A mutli-technique search for the most primitive CO chondrites in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta

publication icon
Altwegg K (2017) Organics in comet 67P - a first comparative analysis of mass spectra from ROSINA-DFMS, COSAC and Ptolemy in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

publication icon
Anand Mahesh (2014) Understanding the origin and evolution of water in the Moon through lunar sample studies in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series A

publication icon
Barnes J (2014) The origin of water in the primitive Moon as revealed by the lunar highlands samples in Earth and Planetary Science Letters

publication icon
Barnes J (2017) Recovering planet radial velocity signals in the presence of starspot activity in fully convective stars in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

 
Title Catch a Shooting Star 
Description We created a physical exhibition about meteorites, including pieces of the Moon that visitors could touch, for installation at the University of Manchester Museum. The exhibit is part of the Earth Science Galleries, and comprises a series of touchpads linked to videos telling the story of meteorites and their importance in understanding the origin of the Solar System. The two staff, Dr Richard Greenwood and Dr Diane Johnson, who created the exhibition, were employed as a PDRA and a Project Officer, respectively, on the linked grant APSOU 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The exhibit is available for the use of Planetary Science students at the University of Manchester as a resource complementary to the materials available in the dept of Earth Sciences collection. 
 
Description There are 11 separate projects funded on the grant, and all the projects achieved their objectives - as can be seen by the number of publications that have already been produced. The main highlight coming from the grant concerned research on comets, specifically data interpretation from the Rosetta mission.
Exploitation Route Our findings so far have been used by other academics, by the media, by industry, by space agencies and by school teachers. They are also the platform on which additional successful grant proposals to STFC were based.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Education,Electronics,Environment,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Security and Diplomacy

URL http://www.open.ac.uk/science/physical-science/planetary-space-sciences/pss-research
 
Description There are several separate areas in which findings from the research have had an impact beyond their immediate academic field: (1) Public Engagement: (a) Innumerable lectures and talks to the general public, plus visits to schools (all age groups); (b)presentation of science at public exhibitions (Royal Society Summer Exhibition, AstroFest etc.); (c) contribution towards media coverage of science stories, most notably the Rosetta mission and landing of Philae. (2) Teaching: development of a Masters degree in Space Science and Technology is heavily based on research findings; the qualification is aimed at people seeking a career in the space industry. (3) Development of detectors, based on the instrument built for the Rosetta mission, has moved into the cosmetics, hospitality and health-monitoring fields, as well as the defence and medical fields. Through our membership of ESA's ELIPS programme, we are attempting to advance the instrument that was deployed on the Philae lander into a version that could be used for astronaut monitoring. We have also been invited to contribute to an ESA/Roscosmos mission, Luna-27, that is currently under consideration (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34504067). If this goes ahead, it will see instrumentation from Rosetta developed to explore the southern lunar pole, part of the vision of the current ESA DG for an eventual "lunar village". (4) Development of CCD and CMOS detectors, in association with industry, has led to new sensors better able to withstand radiation, enabling deployment on key long duration space missions. (5) Modelling of planetary atmospheres as well as remote sensing of the surface of Mars has resulted in development of algorithms that have practical applications for monitoring the Earth's atmosphere and surface.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Education,Electronics,Environment,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description EuroCares
Amount € 1,500,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 01/2015 
End 12/2018
 
Description PROSPA
Amount € 300,000 (EUR)
Organisation ESA - ESTEC 
Sector Public
Country Netherlands
Start 03/2016 
End 02/2018
 
Description Royal Society Partnership Grant
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2015 
End 07/2016
 
Description STERLIM
Amount € 300,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Space Agency 
Sector Public
Country France
Start 10/2015 
End 09/2017
 
Description STFC Public Engagement Award
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/P006205/1 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 02/2018
 
Description School Partnership 
Organisation William Perkin School
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Schools partnership - training a group of school students (aged 10-12) in planetary sciences
Collaborator Contribution Enabling PhD students to get a taste of school teaching
Impact Poster presented at Royal Society Poster presented at imperial College Science festival
Start Year 2015
 
Description Shooting Star 
Organisation University of Manchester
Department Manchester Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Design and build of an exhibit for the museum
Collaborator Contribution trained staff in preparation of material and text for public display
Impact Main output is an exhibit at the Manchester Museum, where visitors can touch pieces of meteorite
Start Year 2015
 
Title Noble gas analysis by FINESSE 
Description By interfacing a noble-gas type mass spectrometer and laser to the current FINESSE system, we are now able to analyse the abundance and isotopic composition of nanogram amounts of noble gases and nitrogen with high precision. This is an internationally unique facility. 
Type Of Technology New/Improved Technique/Technology 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact The technical performance of the new FINESSE system has been instrumental in us gaining contracts from ESA as part of their Lunar Exploration programme. 
 
Description BBC Sky at Night programme about Mercury and the 9 May 2016 transit recorded at the OU (myself and PhD student Jack Wright were interviewed) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Sky at Night programme about Mercury, hosted at the Open University on the occassion (the dat after Tx) of the 9 May 2016 solar transit by Mercury
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Conversation pieces 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The OU was one of the first universities to support the daily news blog The Conversation (https://theconversation.com/uk). The site has the tag-line "Academic rigour, journalistic flair": academic specialists write the articles, which are edited for readability. This is the opposite from most news sites, in which journalists write the articles, relying on specialists to provide a quote. Five of the CoIs on the CG have written 61 articles in the past two years, which have been read a total of 1.5 million times; an additional 4 PDRA and 3 PhD students have written a further 13 articles, attracting 380,000 views. Every article is accompanied by the text 'X receives funding from the STFC'. One of the CoIs (Grady) has a column on the site, which is syndicated to the US and Australian editions of the news site, gaining a wider coverage for the articles. At the current rate of growth of the site, it is anticipated that there is likely to be at least one article per week from CG staff, their PDRA and students, gaining a global coverage for their research.

Updated in March 2017: the PI alone has had more than a million reads of her articles
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016
URL https://theconversation.com/uk
 
Description Discover Mercury videos 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A series of 10 videos about Mercury, the BepiColombo mission and how to see a transit of Mercury across the Sun, featuirng OU staff and colleagies from many nations involved in Mercury research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.open.edu/openlearn/discovermercury
 
Description MOOCs 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The OU is founder and major partner in the FutureLearn MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course) platform, which provides short courses in a range of subjects for anyone to follow. The courses are free, are informal, and usually last from 4 - 6 weeks with 3-6 hours of study per week. They are designed to provide an introduction to a subject for people with no qualifications in that area, giving a 'taster' to lead people back into more formal education. Staff from the grant have produced two MOOCS, one about the moons of the Solar System called Moons), and one about Astronomy (In the Night Sky). The former has been presented three times, with a total audience of about 30,000, whilst the latter has been presented twice with an audience of about 20,000
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
URL https://www.futurelearn.com/
 
Description Public Lectures 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The PI, MMG, has given between about 30 public lectures, talks and school visits each year since forever. Following the successful Rosetta mission, she has given around 50 such presentations a year, leading to animated discussions about comets and other extraterrestrial bodies, the value of space exploration as an incentive for studying science and engineering, technological developments and spin outs from space missions and the cost of space exploration when weighed against other calls on the public purse.

At almost every lecture, MMG receives additional invitations to give talks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010,2011,2012,2013
 
Description Royal Society Summer Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Royal Society Summer Exhibition takes place over 7 days in central London. In 2014, we led a consortium of institutions to produce an exhibit about comets and the Rosetta mission, and also were a partner in an exhibition about GAIA. In 2015, we again led a consortium exhibition about Rosetta and comets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2016