Astronomy at the Open University 2020-2023

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 formation of the first stars and galaxies to the birth of planets now in the star-forming regions of the Milky Way Galaxy closest to the Sun. We do this research by observation, laboratory experiments, computer simulations and mathematical 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 School of Physical Sciences at The OU in Milton Keynes.

So what are we trying to find out? We have 7 separate projects covering a variety of things on all astronomical size-scales, from searching for and learning about planets orbiting the Sun's near-neighbour stars to using the magnification caused by the "gravitational lensing" effect to detect ultra-high redshift galaxies. These latter, most distant observable objects were formed when the Universe was very young. We study the jets of energetic particles which are ejected from the accreting black holes at the centres of galaxies, and use our observations to deduce how the jets affect their host galaxies and surroundings. We also work out how the jets in an individual galaxy change over the history of the Universe. Similarly, we study the formation of dust and stars throughout the Universe's history. Within our own Galaxy we pay particular attention to the most massive stars, which have masses roughly 100 times that of the Sun. They are extremely luminous and short-lived by astronomical standards - i.e. 10s or 100s of millions of years, rather than billions of years like the Sun and other "normal" lower mass stars. The most massive stars eject a lot of the material from their outer layers, we observe how this affects the neighbouring regions of the Galaxy. We use huge archives of data generated in the SuperWASP search for planets transiting bright stars to measure the variability of stars themselves. Using the citizen science project we classify variable stars, and use the results to identify new examples of rare types of variable stars, for example red stars on the point of merging to form a "red nova". We are looking for rocky planets which orbit very close to their host stars - i.e. planets whose year is only about 10 Earth-days or less. These are interesting because the intense heating from the nearby star causes the rock to melt or change into gas, so the star ends up shrouded in metal-rich gas originating on the planets' surface. This gives us a unique opportunity to measure the composition of the rocky surfaces of these planets. In the laboratory we take measurements of ices - of water, but also carbon-monoxide, carbon-dioxide, and more complicated molecules like methanol. Because interstellar space is so cold, these molecules exist in ice form there, as so-called astrophysical ices. By re-creating them in the lab we can interpret telescope observations of them and work out how the first complex organic molecules formed in the Universe. This allows us to prepare for the launch of the next great NASA/ESA space observatory: the James Webb Space Telescope. Finally we are involved in planning the requirements for ESA's ARIEL space telescope, which will measure the compositions of planets orbiting other stars.

Planned Impact



Our key external, industrial and commercial partners in this project include ESA, the Wolfson Trust, Deimos UK, the BBC, OpenLearn, FutureLearn, Sybilla Technologies (a Polish SME), and the food sector (e.g. SMEs / farms, ADAS, Royal Agricultural University, LettUs Grow Ltd, PepsiCo).


We will use our roles in the STFC Food Network+ to seek applications of our technology, data science and facilities use in this grant, in the service of applications in food supply and food security, including in the developing world. Several projects have already resulted, including "Combining IR and pattern recognition to enhance pregnancy success in cattle: Sensing well done steak."
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 public service TV networks globally.
The OpenScience Observatories (OSO) are in-house robotic telescopes used in this proposal. They are also used in our distance education, and commercially in space debris tracking. PIRATE has frequently been used as a hands-on exemplar at public events. The OSO are publicly available for use at 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.



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 provides Badged Open Courses on OpenLearn and founded FutureLearn, the UK's MOOC provider. We are responsible for the public engagement work packages in the Horizon 2020 projects ASTERICS and ESCAPE, highlighting our research.


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Cantwell T. M. (2020) Low-frequency observations of the giant radio galaxy NGC 6251 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Hardcastle M. J. (2020) Radio galaxies and feedback from AGN jets in New Astronomy Reviews

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Hebrard G. (2020) VizieR Online Data Catalog: WASP-148 velocity curve (Hebrard+, 2020) in VizieR Online Data Catalog

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Jimenez-Gallardo A. (2021) Extended X-Ray Emission around FR II Radio Galaxies: Hot Spots, Lobes, and Galaxy Clusters in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series

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Jurlin N. (2020) The life cycle of radio galaxies in the LOFAR Lockman Hole field in Astronomy and Astrophysics

Description Bringing different worlds together: Engaging very low social and science capital audiences on Teesside through exoplanet science
Amount £206,000 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/V005537/1 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2021 
End 05/2024
Description RedDots 
Organisation University of Göttingen
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We worked with the RedDots collaboration led by Sandra Jeffers at Göttingen on radial velocity (RV) searches for planets orbiting the Sun's nearest neighbour stars. We provided expertise in designing and writing proposals, assessing and ameliorating the effects of stellar activity on RVs, signal detection and verification, and participated in writing papers. We also led the design of PR materials and used some internal funding to pay for professionally-generated artwork.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners worked with us on data acquisition and analysis, proposal and paper writing.
Impact Many high profile planet discoveries have resulted, with significant international press coverage.
Start Year 2015
Description NYM and Yorkshire Dales Dark Skies Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Delivered the opening lecture for the February 2021 Dark Skies Festival online via zoom.

Partnered with Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks and Go who handled the publicity, IT and hosting. Audience exceeded 500 and feedback was excellent.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description STEMFest in Space 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact STEMFest in Space was an online event for schools held on 8th Oct 2020. It was organised by RTC North. The idea for the event came on the back of a successful space event at Egglescliffe school in October 2019 involving a visit from Andy Aldrin and Jim Christensen. Due to lockdown, we have had to adapt our model and this year we would have liked to have delivered a Face 2 Face Space event with industries from the space sector delivering hands-on activities for young people and their teachers. We took the decision to instead pull together a virtual event as a result of government restrictions due to the current global pandemic. We were delighted with how the event shaped up and indeed how well supported it was by schools not only in the UK but around the world. We are looking at plans already for something similar in 2021!

478 schools from around the world (including Singapore, Australia, America and The Maldives) registered. Assuming singles classes engaged and class sizes of 30, this is over 14,000 pupils.

OU Prof of Astrophysics Carole Haswell gave a lecture on "Finding New World: The latest News" reporting planet discoveries from The Dispersed Matter Planet Project and the RedDots planet search. This was a 30 min lecture followed by 15 mins Q&A, pitched for 11-18 year olds (Key stages 3-5 inclusive). The audience size was about 1800, with about another 350 watching the recording on youtube. (The lecture was streamed at the same time as a session by Suzie Imber and Dallas Campbell, who are both well-known TV personalities, so quite pleased by this share of the participants!)

RTC North are a business support organisation based in the North East and house the STEM Ambassador Hub on behalf of STEM Learning RTC North run the STEM Ambassador programme and coordinate a range of other events supporting and encouraging industry to work closely with schools to address the national skills shortage and regional challenges such as low aspirations in key focus areas in the North East.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020