Astrophysics at Southampton

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

Abstract

All aspects of our research programme relate to the physics of compact objects: the supernova explosions that create and destroy them, the accretion that makes them luminous, the outflows that accompany disk-accreting systems, and the effect they have on their environment. We wish to understand the physics behind these phenomena and exploit them, especially for cosmology. We have a special interest in time-domain astronomy as a tool for pursuing these goals. Our interests cover a wide range of scales, from neutron stars to active galactic nuclei. The group is well balanced: our interests span a broad set of topics, but with overlap that allows effective collaboration.

Here, we request support for projects across the range of topics outlined above. On Galactic/stellar scales, we will exploit state-of-the-art astrometric and imaging surveys to study the birth and growth of black holes (Project 1). We will also use simultaneous fast X-ray, UV and optical observations to shed new light on accreting X-ray binaries (Project 4). Moreover, we will produce the most sensitive time-domain hard X-ray "meta-survey", by synthesizing data from 3 separate missions for the first time (Project 5). Finally, we will uncover the population of black-hole ultraluminous X-ray sources, the local analogues of super-critically accreting supermassive black holes (SMBH, Project 8).

On extra-galactic scales, we will self-consistently model line-driven disk winds in AGN for the first time and hence develop a physically motivated feedback prescription (Project 2). We will also use multi-wavelength time-domain observations of AGN to understand the disk geometry and emission processes close to the central engine (Project 3). In addition, we will use 3D radiation hydrodynamical simulations to address the ``final parsec problem'' for merging SMBHs (project 6).

On cosmological scales, we will exploit our leadership of the 4MOST/TiDES survey to build a next-generation SN Ia Hubble Diagram (Project 7). We will also shed new light on the co-evolution of SMBHs and their hosts, by identifying the interaction between feedback and mergers in creating the M_BH vs sigma relation, and by clarifying the roles of internal and external processes (Project 9).

Given our long-standing commitment to public engagement with research (PER), we will also develop and deliver high-impact PER activities associated specifically with four projects (Projects 1, 3, 7 and 9). These activities will range from converting astrophysical data into sound (in order to engage with visually impaired audiences) to a high-quality full-dome video illustrating how X-ray, radio, UV and optical observations allow us to "see" the environment around SMBHs.

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. Our researchers have skills in data analysis, instrumentation and computational modelling that can be applied across a broad range of fields to produce commercial and societal impact. This new grant will consolidate and broaden the variety and scope of this impact.

Our group participates in a range of enterprise activities and commercial collaborations, particular in the medical physics field. For example:

* Work on the design of technology for gamma-ray detection and imaging with impact in the fields of homeland security, nuclear safety, counter-terrorism practices and medicine. A UoS spin-out company, Symetrica, currently emplys 75+ people in the UK and the US, and was recently listed was no. 60 in the Times-Hiscox list of fastest growing tech companies, with sales of £11m, showing a 75% rise over 3 years. We continue to collaborate with Symetrica to develop new techniques and products in homeland security and medical imaging.

* MoleGazer, a project to translate astronomical image processing to analyse time series of photographs to identify changes in moles and provide early detection of skin cancer.

* A study of measurement errors in blood pressure measurements identified up to 40% of patients not optimally controlled. We are now generating a cutting-edge Hierarchical Bayesian Monte Carlo model that can probe the complex behaviours of large groups of patients. The outputs will feed into an App/Web interface that will help practitioners decide the best way to proceed with treatment for a given clinical encounter, providing a substantial saving opportunity for healthcare providers.

* OPTICam is a UoS-led triple-band high-time resolution camera for Astronomy. Our market research shows that it has commercial potential in the amateur community.

* UoS has developed a strong relationship with DataKind UK, a charity which provides other charities with data science skills by means of hack-athon style 'data dives'. Southampton has hosted two data dives and researchers have attended other dives in London.


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) and collaborate with the Winchester Science Centre. Our group directly reaches thousands of students and members of the public each year through:

* 'Soton Astrodome' (reaching local KS3 school students and members of the public in events like Stargazing Live evenings, Southampton Science and Engineering Festival (SOTSEF), Human Worlds, Paulton's Park, Sea City Museum and City Art Gallery.

* Stands at festivals as part of the 'Bringing Research to Life' Roadshow at Cheltenham Science Festival, and Glastonbury which are themed on research areas such as supernovae, black holes and aurorae.

* We lead the 'SETI Cipher Challenge', engaging with more than 280 students/year with challenges directly linked to our research.

* "Astro-sonification", which is a software system that enables (particularly) visual impaired communities to convert data produced in our research into sound. This will be a flagship project in the inclusivity zone at SOTSEF.


We provide a source of skilled PhD graduates for non-academic professions. Our astrophysics PhDs, with their analytical and data skills, remain sought-after in industry (e.g. medical physics, defence, finance and the education sector).

Publications

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