Astrophysics at Southampton

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Physics and Astronomy


All aspects of our research programme are related to the physics of compact objects: the supernova explosions that create and destroy them, the accretion processes that make them luminous X-ray sources, the outflows that appear to accompany all disk-accreting systems, and the effect they have on their environment. Our goals are both to understand the physics behind these phenomena and to exploit them, especially for cosmological purposes. We have a particular interest in time-domain astrophysics as an efficient tool for pursuing these goals. These research interests cover a huge range of scales, from accreting white dwarfs, neutron stars and stellar-mass black holes, to quasars and active galactic nuclei (AGN).

In this application, we request support for projects across the range of topics outlined above. On Galactic (i.e. stellar) scales, we will use simultaneous fast X-ray, UV and optical observations to shed new light on the variability of accreting X-ray binaries. We will also produce the most sensitive time-domain hard X-ray ``meta-survey'', by synthesizing data from three separate space missions for the first time.

On extra-galactic scales, we will self-consistently model the observational signatures of accretion disk winds in AGN and thus test outflow-based unification scenarios. We will also use multi-wavelength time-domain observations of AGN to understand the disk geometry and emission processes close to the supermassive black hole. Additionally, we will leverage a NuSTAR X-ray legacy survey we are leading to robustly measure the column-dependent space density of obscured AGN for the first time. Finally, we will exploit our leadership in an eMERLIN legacy radio survey and its associated Chandra Large X-ray Program to establish the X-ray and radio properties of AGN down to unprecedented low luminosity levels.

On cosmological scales, we will use multi-object spectroscopy to measure the host galaxy properties for the sample of SN Ia provided by the Dark Energy Survey, which will yield the most precise supernova-based cosmological constraints to date. We will also drive time-domain science and supernova cosmology within VEILS, the first (and UK-led) extragalactic infra-red synoptic survey. In addition, we will shed new light on the co-evolution of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies, by identifying the interaction between feedback and mergers in creating the well-known relationship between black hole mass and velocity dispersion, and by establishing the relative importance of internal (e.g. disc instabilities) and external processes (e.g. mergers) for galaxy evolution.

Given our long-standing commitment to public engagement with research (PER), we will also develop and deliver high-impact PER activities. These will range from a citizen science project based on X-ray light curves to a high-quality full-dome video illustrating how time-resolved, simultaneous X-ray and optical observations allow us to ``see'' the immediate environment around accreting black holes.

Planned Impact

The work of the University of Southampton (UoS) Astronomy Group addresses some of the biggest questions in modern astrophysics, bringing benefits through public understanding and curiosity, providing cultural enrichment via collaborations between our scientists and the arts, and through links with industrial partners to provide economic prosperity. This new grant will consolidate and broaden the variety and scope of this impact.

Astronomy remains at the forefront of public engagement in science with a high profile and almost insatiable public interest. Our team (including scientists) participate in standard outreach activities (e.g., talks at science cafes, astronomical societies, blogs/social media) but also continuously look for opportunities to reach new audiences. Our group directly reaches thousands of students and members of the public each year through:

* 'Soton Astrodome' (~7000 school students/year + 1000 members of the public in events like Stargazing Live evenings, Southampton Science and Engineering Festival, Winchester Science Festival, Paulton's, Sea City Museum and City Art Gallery.

* The Supernova stand, which reached more than 10,000 members of the public across 7 events as part of the 'Bringing Research to Life' Roadshow at Cheltenham Science Festival, Bestival and Glastonbury (2014-2016).

* Our partner organisation, the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium (WSC) hosts 175,000 visitors/year and is a beacon for public engagement, family learning and empowerment. The UoS and WSC have engaged in task-level cooperation based on mutual trust for more than 10 years (and recently more formally through a Memorandum of Understanding). WSC has contributed directly to student/staff enrichment through the provision of placements/volunteering opportunities as well as REF Impact Case Studies through the creation of multiple high impact, interactive exhibits and public engagement expertise.

* Teachers support: through school's partnership with the local Science Learning Centre and our Ogden Trust schools. We also have an Issac Physics fellow who runs workshops for A-level students and runs teacher CPD. This support has long-term value for the future teaching of the physics and astronomy.

* #AstroAirport: we took our team to the departure lounge at Southampton Airport and engaged over 4,500 passengers in a two-way conversation about our world leading research (2016).

* We have led the 'SETI Cipher Challenge', engaging with more than 280 students/year with challenges directly linked to our research (2014-present).

Besides PE, our group also participates in enterprise activities. For example:

* We have a distinguished body of work on the design of technology for gamma-ray detection and imaging with impact in the fields of homeland security and nuclear safety and counter-terrorism practices. A spin-out company, Symetrica, currently employs 26+ people in the UK and the US, and has been recognised as an example of best practice, (Symetrica recently closed a £143 million deal for its hand held radiation detectors). A knowledge transfer partnership between UoS (PI: Bird) and Symetrica started in Nov. 2016, funding research on new imaging systems for medical science and homeland security.

* Opticam is a UoS-led triple-band high-time resolution camera for Astronomy (partially supported by the STFC Impact Acceleration Account 2016). Our market research shows that it has commercial potential in the amateur community.

We also provide a significant source of trained, skilled PhD graduates for non-academic professions. Our astrophysics PhDs, with their analytical and data skills, remain sought after in industry (including medical physics, the defence industry, financial data projects and the education sector). To enhance this area, we have recently set-up a joint-PhD program with UoS department of Electronics and Computer Science to train PhD students in areas promoted by UK's Alan Turing Institute.


10 25 50

publication icon
Alfonso-Garzón J (2018) Optical/X-ray correlations during the V404 Cygni June 2015 outburst in Astronomy & Astrophysics

publication icon
Annuar A (2020) NuSTAR observations of four nearby X-ray faint AGNs: low luminosity or heavy obscuration? in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

publication icon
Bernardi M (2018) Stellar mass functions and implications for a variable IMF in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

publication icon
Bernardi M (2018) M*/L gradients driven by IMF variation: large impact on dynamical stellar mass estimates in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

publication icon
Boubert D (2020) Kinematic study of the association Cyg OB3 with Gaia DR2 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Description Undergraduate Summer Research Bursaries
Amount £1,200 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Astronomical Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2021 
End 09/2021
Title PYTHON: A State-of-the-Art Multi-Dimensional Monte Carlo Ionization and Radiative Transfer Code 
Description We are actively developing PYTHON, a state-of-the-art multi-dimensional Monte Carlo ionization and radiative transfer code. It is designed primarily for use in modelling astrophysical outflows and has been deployed in a wide variety of settings, from young stellar objects, to compact binaries to quasars and active galactic nuclei. The code forms the basis for the research project that was carried out by PDRA Nick Higginbottom. It is publicly available via github. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Many publications, citations and collaborations. 
Description DES-VEILS External Collaboration agreement 
Organisation Dark Energy Survey (DES)
Country Global 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Share infrared AGN light curves from VEILS with the DES AGN collaboration
Collaborator Contribution Share of optical AGN light curves from DES with the VEILS AGN collaboration
Impact none yet
Start Year 2018
Title Python -- A State-of-the-Art 3D Ionization and Radiative Transfer Code 
Description We are continuing to develop a state-of-the-art 3D ionization and radiative transfer code, which is primarily aimed at modelling disk winds associated with accreting compact objects. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Multiple journal articles. Multiple new reasearch collaborations. 
Description The #SotonAstroArt project 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The #SotonAstroArt project has engaged local public over 3,000 and over 100 artists at a variety of events e.g. Hands on Humanities day, Space Chase half term reading week in Southampton Libraries and Light Up Poole digital arts festival. All our exhibits of the art that was created by local artists also had a workshop element where the public created their own art inspired by our Dark Energy Survey (DES) research that is taken here at the University. Each event was evaluated with a paper form, and or by taking photos of the art work the public created.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
Description The #SotonAstroArt project 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The #SotonAstroArt (2017-2021) Sci-Art project engaged ~15,270 people with DES/Supernovae research. ~3,750 people took part in arts workshops at arts festivals and libraries (Hands on Humanities Day at the Human Worlds Festival: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and Light Up Poole! Digital Arts Festival (LUP!) 2019, 2020), with a further ~11,490 on-line engagements through activity downloads, video views, unique users to websites and social media use.
Audiences included:
i) Engagement with Emerging Artists 97 Emerging Artists were given over 2,600 photographic astronomy plates in 2017, creating 87 new artworks. The artworks were exhibited at 5 public engagement events [Human Worlds: 2018, 2019, 2020 and LUP!: 2019, 2020] to <500 people, and exhibited at a further 9 professional art exhibitions (Including: TEDX Whitehall event at The Royal Society, Lumen Residency exhibits in Italy and Open Studios at Dean Clough, Halifax). The artworks and artists comments were analysed, with the artists claiming to have learned new skills, gained knowledge, valued the experience and been inspired by the research processes:
"...using the plates, I learned practical skills about navigation, and was able to visualise issues around time and dimensionality.... this is very useful for me, it gave me the opportunity to play with ideas about the shape and mechanics of the universe." (Artist H. Cawley MA); "...being able to work with these plates has been a very special experience as it forces one to think about our place in the universe...." (Artist A. Van Dyck); "It took me a long time to make a mark on the slides, as they are such special and unique documents." (Artist J. Tidey MA)"; and "I found the whole process quite inspirational...I found much to explore that inspired ideas for work about how we view and interact with the night sky...I am still working with the plates I have left, and if there are ever more going spare I'd love to carry on!" (Artist A. Kirby BSc).
ii) Engagement with family groups
Families participation in the project led to increased learning about supernovae, Physics and an audience attitude change toward learning about Physics. Approximately 990 artworks were made during 13 #SotonAstroArt workshops on campus, in local art galleries, churches and libraries in response to a narrative about our Supernova research. The contents of 176 drawings produced during two festivals (Hands on Humanities Day 2019 at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton and LUP! in St James Church Hall, Poole) were analysed revealing that 26% included supernovae. As the subject was not taught at primary school, we determined this to be evidence of participants gaining new knowledge. Of the ~2,000 people who attended the Photon Shop at LUP! (2020) 22 people were surveyed representing 84 family members. When asked what they had learned, 31% reported having learned about Supernovae; 40% reported that Supernova activities were their favourite activity in the shop. 75% agreed with the statement: "I am more likely to study Physics or recommend studying Physics to a friend/family member" as a result of visiting the Photon Shop. 95% agreed with the statement "It inspired me to find out more about Physics".
As a result of the Covid restrictions of interacting with face-to-face the project also achieved the following: Delivery of two online workshops, an on-line amateur artists competition and distribution of 300 supernovae teaching resources in teaching packs for local Southampton families without internet access.
iii) Engagement with on-line audiences
On-line audience reach included visitors to websites, blogposts and followers of an on-line art competition. The competition fascinated participants, gave them knowledge about supernovae and motivated them to learn more about the research topic:
"Pupils who took part learned about the life cycle of stars and supernova stars for the first time. They were enthralled by images of supernova stars and chose to create artwork inspired by them. They were fascinated by the subject and spoke positively about learning more about stars and space in the future." (Primary Teacher, Merseyside); "I learnt that the star forming this supernova was 45x more massive than our sun, and the stellar wind that gives it its bubble shape is in fact moving over 4 million miles per hour." (Abi Tebb, competition winner).
iv) Engagement with Public Engagement Professionals
Dr Jones was invited to give a talk on #SotonAstroArt at the International Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) conference in Japan 2018. The talk was attended by to 45 Science communicators and included in the Conference proceedings provided to the 446 conference participants from 53 countries.
This award-winning project has achieved its aims of increasing its audiences' scientific literacy, with evidence of increased knowledge of Supernova and Dark Energy research methods and astrophysics concepts amongst the three different audiences engaged: artists, family groups and on-line audiences. The project delivered its objectives, almost doubling the target of engaging 50 artists, inspiring them to create new works using the Sky Survey plates and share them with new audiences. At least 500 people viewed the artwork at four Public Engagement Arts Festivals and nine art exhibitions. The project changed the artists' perceptions of their position in the Universe, giving them a better understanding the size and scale of the Universe and increasing the artists understanding of the astrophysics concepts which enable astronomers to locate the position of stars and galaxies and our position in relation to them, important aspects of the supernovae and dark energy research. A broad range of audiences - in terms of age and socio-economic backgrounds - were engaged through the project workshops, engaging very young families locally in libraries, and members of the public in Poole, an area recognised as having pockets of deprivation.
During the covid lockdowns the project was innovated so that it could be delivered online. The most recent 'online' workshop for Women and Girls in Science day 'sold out' and there are plans to run the workshop for a whole school in Nigeria. Sadie is also running 3 online workshops for the Science and Engineering Festival in March, to meet the demand.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021
Description The Dark Energy Pilot Project 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The dark energy project was a pilot project with local Home Educated Children (14 of them) they worked in teams to create 360 videos for our planetarium (Soton Astrodome) about our Dark Energy Survey (DES) research and they created posters about the research which were presented in a poster day and film screening event which was open to their families and members of the astronomy group. The children also got CREST STEM Discovery awards for their work on this project and part of them getting this award involved self reflection on what they had learned and their own astronomy research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019