Consolidated Grant Astronomy Observation and Theory 2019-2022

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 Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) in Cambridge.

On the largest scales, the proposal includes work to understand the origin and evolution of the Universe itself through precision observations of the cosmic microwave background with new ground-based telescopes, measurements of the 3D positions of galaxies measured with the DES and DESI galaxy surveys, and the development of new techniques to obtain robust constraints on the history of the expansion of the Universe from observations of distant supernovae.

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. Researchers at the IoA lead key parts of the data processing for the ESA Gaia space mission, which is performing a survey of the Milky Way with unprecedented precision and volume. Several projects in this proposal will exploit the forthcoming second data release from Gaia (a thousand-fold increase in data over the first release) to understand the dynamics of the Galaxy and its companions. At the other end of the scale, observations of distant galaxies spanning lookback times of up to 12 billion years provide direct measurements of the evolution of galaxy populations and the buildup of stars and metals with cosmic time. The light from these first galaxies likely led to the reionization of hydrogen in the intergalactic medium, when the age of the Universe was less than one billion years. Modelling this process requires sophisticated hydrodynamical simulations, including radiative transfer effects, and is a further focus of this proposal.

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 theoretical high-energy astrophysics and observational programmes in the grant.

On much smaller scales within galaxies, the grant focusses of the formation of planetary systems through theoretical modelling of the evolution of protoplanetary disks (exploiting high-resolution imaging with ALMA) and their associated debris disks, and on the atmospheres and geology of extrasolar planets.

Planned Impact

The Institute of Astronomy ensures all students, postdoctoral researchers and staff are actively involved both in delivering high-value science, and also engaging and stimulating a variety of additional knowledge-creation activities. These activities focus on public awareness of astrophysical science, and on applications of research developments in medical, space-industry and commercial spheres.

The University of Cambridge has one of the most successful programmes for nurturing knowledge transfer and the resulting economic and societal impact between University departments and industry both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The extraordinarily successful Cambridge Science Park is well known, with expertise and ideas from Cambridge Astrophysics being involved in the establishment of several businesses in the Cambridge area.

The IoA's approach to the search for impact opportunities is embedded in the mechanisms that the University has in place to facilitate this. The University's Research Office provides the primary point of contact for corporate liaison, and is actively involved in pursuing impact and knowledge-exchange activities and opportunities throughout the University. Cambridge Enterprise, the University's technology transfer and entrepreneurship arm, exists to enhance the University of Cambridge's contribution to society through knowledge transfer from the University to the community. Members of the Institute of Astronomy interact with these organisations regularly. Engagement with the wider economic community is supported by a Collaborative Research Facilitator, based in the Cavendish Laboratory, who is able to provide advice on relevant networking and funding opportunities.

In summary, the research carried out at the IoA supported through this will lead to a wide range of impacts across a broad range of areas from direct and specific impact in the application of analysis techniques to problems in the medical field to inspirational outreach programmes engaging with those teaching the next generation of scientists.


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Abazajian K (2022) CMB-S4: Forecasting Constraints on Primordial Gravitational Waves in The Astrophysical Journal

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Acton J (2021) NGTS-19b: a high-mass transiting brown dwarf in a 17-d eccentric orbit in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Aguado D (2020) The S2 Stream: the shreds of a primitive dwarf galaxy.* in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Aguado D (2021) Elevated r-process Enrichment in Gaia Sausage and Sequoia in The Astrophysical Journal

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Aiola S (2020) The Atacama Cosmology Telescope: DR4 maps and cosmological parameters in Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics

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An J (2019) Self-consistent potential-density pairs of thick discs and flattened galaxies in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society