Astronomy at the Open University 2017-2020

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


Our research programme, Astronomy at the Open University, covers the breadth of cosmic evolution, from dark energy to the birth of planets. 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.

So what are we trying to find out? We have 8 separate projects, from exoplanets and stars to distant 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. Boulders gravitated together to make planets, but no-one knows how the dust grains became boulders. We are experimenting with colliding centimetre-sized particles in zero-gravity conditions to see if they stick together, to find the missing link in how planets form. We also 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. A star can even completely destroy a close-in exoplanet, which could be an important new source of dust in the nearby universe and even in distant galaxies in the early Universe. Also in 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 and test instruments for ground-based telescopes and 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 origins.

Planned Impact

Please see Appendix F for further details.

BENEFICIARIES: Our key external, industrial and commercial partners in this project are e2v, Brookhaven National Laboratory, the LSST Corporation, ESA, Astronomy Tuition, the Wolfson Trust, the BBC and FutureLearn.
Our long-established collaboration with UK-based imaging specialist e2v has enabled the company to grow its business in international space missions and increase competitiveness. We have helped develop e2v's understanding of the processes at work in imaging sensors, and improved image sensor designs and test methodologies. The current proposal will allow us to extend e2v's competitiveness in imaging through characterisation of the brighter-fatter effect in CCDs. We have previously studied space radiation damage on the e2v sensors, trained more than 30 engineers in testing of e2v products, and were instrumental in the company's successful £3.8m Regional Growth Fund award in 2012 - funding that has created around 100 jobs. Our project also involves collaboration with Brookhaven National Laboratory and the LSST Corporation, for whom our detector characterisation in this project (in both cases building on our ongoing work) will be valuable for LSST primary science goals and for detector physics.
Our microgravity research programme already has a UKSA-funded outreach programme, with UK astronaut Major Tim Peake planning to tweet our public engagement videos from the ISS (see below) since it fulfils the ELIPS and ISS public engagement objectives of ESA; our research programme will provide further opportunities for new online content. Together with our existing content, this will be promoted through our BBC partnership (described below). We will actively seek opportunities to highlight all research in this grant through our unique OU-BBC media partnership (see below), and our commercial arm OU Worldwide sells a portfolio of our internally-funded BBC programmes to both commercial and pulic service TV networks globally.
The in-house robotic telescopes used in this proposal (PIRATE, the Bradford Robotic Telescope) are also used in our distance education, and PIRATE has been used as a hands-on exemplar by the independent company Astronomy Tuition, who run hands-on residential school astronomy for OU students and other students. Our research in this grant will enable our external teaching partners to provide students with science applications of small telescopes with the telescopes used on hand. PIRATE is also run remotely through the Wolfson Trust and Open University's joint educational initiative, the Open Science Laboratory, which will benefit directly from the exemplar science applications in this proposal, and may involve public and/or student use of our robotic telescope for follow-ups of targets of interest from this proposal.

BENEFICIARIES: Our audiences are (a) the science-inclined general public (b) new public audiences who have previously only had limited engagement with STEM (c) teachers of science at school and college level (d) young people, e.g. ages 10-14 (e) older influencers of young people, such as parents, family, and group leaders. The audience demographics of each broadcast project depend on the channel (e.g. BBC1, BBC2, BBC4, Channel 4) and the slot (i.e. the day and time of transmission).
The OU is a world leader in science public engagement. OU Astronomy research features prominently in the OU's public engagement. The OU has had a Partnership with the BBC for over 40 years and co-produces up to 25 peak time TV and radio series a year and from January 2011 commissions co-productions with other broadcasters e.g. Channel 4. The OU is also one of the leading worldwide providers of free online educational resources. The Open University founded FutureLearn, the UK's MOOC provider. We are responsible for the Education and Public Outreach for PLATO2.0 & ASTERICS, highlighting our research.


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Abbott B (2017) Multi-messenger Observations of a Binary Neutron Star Merger in The Astrophysical Journal

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Alfen N (2018) Photometric Benchmarks of Bright Blazars in the Northern Hemisphere in Research Notes of the AAS

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Amvrosiadis A (2018) ALMA observations of lensed Herschel sources: testing the dark matter halo paradigm in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Amvrosiadis A. (2018) ALMA observations of lensed Herschel sources : Testing the dark-matter halo paradigm in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Andrews H (2018) Asymmetric ejecta of cool supergiants and hypergiants in the massive cluster Westerlund 1 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters

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Anglada-Escudé G (2020) RedDots: a temperate 1.5 Earth-mass planet candidate in a compact multiterrestrial planet system around GJ 1061 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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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