Astronomy and Astrophysics at Edinburgh

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


This grant supports research in astronomy and astrophysics in Edinburgh, which spans processes from cosmological scales of billions of light years, down to the creation of stars, and the formation and evolution of planets and planetary systems. Our research involves observation, theory and numerical simulation, and in particular brings these different aspects together to address some of the most fundamental questions that humans have asked since the dawn of civilisation: what are the origins of the Earth and the objects that we see in the sky at night, and what is our place in the Universe?

Remarkable progress in our understanding has been made over the last few decades. On the largest scales, a standard model for cosmology has emerged, which can explain the expansion history of the Universe and the distribution of matter within it. In this model, only five percent of the Universe is composed of normal 'baryonic' matter - the matter we are familiar with, from which planets and stars are made. The rest is composed of exotic material known as 'dark matter', and a 'dark energy' field which is causing the rate of expansion of the Universe to increase. However, the nature of dark matter and dark energy remain unknown. Our proposed research addresses this, by studying their effects on the large-scale distribution of galaxies, the distortions that they cause to the light reaching us from distant galaxies (a process known as gravitational lensing), and more locally their effect on the distributions and orbits of stars and star clusters in our own and nearby galaxies.

Detailed observations of large samples of galaxies across cosmic time, combined with precision studies of the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, have led to an enhanced understanding of how galaxies form and evolve. Cosmological simulations are able to provide a remarkable match to observations and are providing considerable insight into the physical processes that must be driving galaxy evolution. Nevertheless, we still lack a complete understanding of what regulates star formation in galaxies, and how massive black holes (a million to a billion solar masses) and active galactic nuclei (AGN) form at their centres. Modern theory favours an input of energy from supernovae and AGN to heat and expel gas out of galaxies, but the details are not fully understood. Our research addresses this, through detailed studies of the galaxy population across cosmic time, the black holes within them, and the impact of galaxies and AGN on their gaseous surroundings.

On much smaller scales, it is only just over two decades since the first planet outside our Solar System was detected; more than 4000 of these exoplanets are now known. The remarkable diversity of the population of detected exoplanets, compared to the planets in our own Solar System, is revolutionising our understanding of how planetary systems form, but also opening up many new questions. Our research focusses primarily on simulations of planet formation, and on direct imaging and spectroscopic studies of exoplanets to understand their atmospheres and nature.

Our research in Edinburgh is driven by technological breakthroughs in observational facilities and computing power, and enhanced by novel statistical analysis techniques and new theoretical approaches. During the period of this grant, Edinburgh researchers will lead major new surveys and high-precision measurements at wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum from X-rays to radio waves, using ground-based observatories and space-based satellites. Our sophisticated new simulations will provide detailed predictions, to be compared to current and ongoing observational data. We anticipate major progress in our understanding of the full history and structure of our Universe and our place within it.

Planned Impact

We have a strong track record of broader impact from our research, both through knowledge exchange and public engagement, and we will continue to expand these activities building on the research proposed in this grant.

1) Knowledge transfer and exploitation

Much of our research involves new technological developments, including the management and statistical analysis of large datasets, high precision imaging analysis techniques, and the advanced computational and data visualisation techniques required for the production and analysis of our cosmological simulations. Knowledge transfer has long been a core part of our programme, and our knowledge transfer activities have been further enhanced by the opening of the Higgs Centre for Innovation (HCI) at the Royal Observatory in 2018; this joint venture between the University and STFC is a business incubation facility in the 'Big Data' and Space industries, which is currently half-way through its 2-yr ramp up to a full quota of 12 companies. To maximally exploit this opportunity, in recent years we have recruited three new faculty as Chancellors Fellows, with a specific focus on further advancing our knowledge transfer activities in the areas of novel data handling technology, data visualisation, and the Space industry sector. Combined with our Wide Field Astronomy Unit, with its extensive expertise in processing, analysing, combining and archiving enormous datasets, we are very well-placed to build on any opportunities that our research offers for broader impact, and have specific plans in this direction that are outlined in our Pathways to Impact document.

2) Public engagement

Our research is of great public interest, and we have a very strong track record of extensive activities in public engagement, in particular through the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre; this is managed by staff from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK-ATC), but jointly funded by STFC and the University of Edinburgh, and implemented using volunteer effort from staff and students across the IfA and the UK-ATC. We undertake a large and vigorous programme that draws directly on the cutting-edge research supported by our STFC Consolidated grant. Activities include weekly winter talks, observing evenings, adult 'continuing-education' certificated evening courses, the 'ask an Astronomer' phone line, School visits, the development and operation of the Dark Sky Park programme, and the development of educational resources for teachers. The annual 'Open Doors' event attracted over 3000 visitors in 2019, and each year the overall Visitor Centre programme directly reaches nearly 2,500 schoolchildren through many tens of school visits, and around 9,000 members of the public. More widely, the Visitor Centre, with large contributions from IfA staff, took part in the creation of resources and delivery of events for a national public engagement campaign around the James Webb Space Telescope which has to date reached over 30,000 schoolchildren. Members of IfA also engage in many one-off activities including numerous public lectures, media engagements and actively promoting press coverage of our research. We intend to continue all of these activities through the forthcoming grant period, building directly on the proposed research. A particular highlight of our proposed future programme is the development and delivery of new planetarium shows, based on our consolidated grant research, taking advantage of a new planetarium system purchased by the Institute for Astronomy, and in partnership with Dynamic Earth.


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Alegre L (2022) A machine-learning classifier for LOFAR radio galaxy cross-matching techniques in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Anbajagane D (2022) Galaxy velocity bias in cosmological simulations: towards per cent-level calibration in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Appleby S (2023) The physical nature of circumgalactic medium absorbers in Simba in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Barkus B (2022) The application of ridgelines in extended radio source cross-identification in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Cadman J (2022) Binary companions triggering fragmentation in self-gravitating discs in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Contreras-Santos A (2022) The three hundred project: galaxy cluster mergers and their impact on the stellar component of brightest cluster galaxies in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Contreras-Santos A (2022) Galaxy pairs in the three hundred simulations: a study on the performance of observational pair-finding techniques in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Cui W (2022) The Three Hundred project: The gizmo-simba run in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society