Observational Astrophysics

Astrophysics is the study of the physical nature of celestial objects and the Universe in which they live.

The Astrophysics group at Lancaster was set up in 2015 within the Physics Department, complementing the existing Astro-particle Cosmology and Space and Planetary Physics groups. 

The group's research is primarily observational and tackles some of the most important open questions in Astrophysics, broadly centred around understanding the formation and evolution of galaxies and the properties of the Universe itself. The group's research on galaxies includes detailed measurement of the stellar populations within relatively nearby galaxies and star clusters ("galactic archaeology") through to searches for the most distant galaxies observable. Through these studies, we can probe the earliest systems that formed in the Universe. Related research on the properties of the Universe includes measuring cosmological parameters such as the expansion rate and geometry of the Universe, and the relative fractions and properties of its constituents, including ordinary matter and the mysterious dark matter and dark energy.

This research involves making state-of-the-art observations using the world's most powerful telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the facilities of the European Southern Observatory, including ALMA and VLT. At the same time, the group is involved in the scientific planning for several new telescopes and instruments that will come online in the next 5-10 years and that will revolutionise research in astrophysics. These include the 4MOST spectrograph to be mounted on the VISTA telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (an 8m diameter survey telescope), the 40m European Extremely Large Telescope and in space ESA's Euclid mission (a wide-field survey telescope for cosmology), ESA's FLARE mission, and the 6m diameter James Webb Space Telescope.

For information on the activities of some of our undergraduate and summer internship students plus the LancAstro conference series please see the XGAL website

Key research

  • galaxy formation and evolution
  • very high-redshift galaxies
  • sub-mm galaxies
  • supermassive black holes
  • reionisation of the universe
  • supernovae as cosmological probes
  • dark matter and dark energy
  • chemical abundances of stars, globular clusters and galaxies
  • scientific planning for future telescopes and instruments
  • citizen science
  • machine learning for astrophysics

People

Observational Astrophysics

Observational Astrophysics

B006c, B - Floor, Physics Building

Observational Astrophysics

Observational Astrophysics

+44 (0)1524 595234 C037, C - Floor, Physics Building

Observational Astrophysics

+44 (0)1524 593074

Observational Astrophysics

+44 (0)1524 593529 C035, C - Floor, Physics Building

Observational Astrophysics

+44 (0)1524 592396 C031, C - Floor, Physics Building

Observational Astrophysics

B006c, B - Floor, Physics Building

Publications

Opportunities and PhD Projects

Fellowships

We encourage researchers to consider the Lancaster Observational Astrophysics group as a host for prestigious fellowship applications.

Below is a list of fellowship opportunities available to astrophysicists. Some of these fellowships require the host department to provide full economic costings (e.g. RS URF), match funding (e.g. Leverhulme) or pre-select a list of candidates (e.g. STFC ERF, UKRI FLF). We recommend that you contact Professor Isobel Hook as early as possible in order to ensure that your application can proceed successfully. Many of the deadlines below are based on those from previous years so please check the organisation website for the correct date.

Astrophysics Specific Fellowships

General Fellowships Available To Astrophysicists

PhD Projects

We encourage applications from excellent candidates wanting to pursue a PhD in Astrophysics.

Below is a list of our current PhD project opportunities. Applications received on or before Friday 25 January 2019 will be given full consideration. We currently expect to have at least two fully funded PhD projects: 1. Galaxy growth and evolution over the last 8 billion years; 2. The formation and evolution of the most active star-forming galaxies in the Universe. The remaining PhD projects are offered on a competitive basis and are subject to availability of funding. We welcome applications from students with their own funding on all of our research programmes.

Applicants are normally expected to have the equivalent of an upper second class degree (2.1) in either Physics, Astrophysics or a related discipline.

The Physics Department holds an Athena SWAN Silver award and JUNO Championship status and is strongly committed to fostering diversity within its community as a source of excellence, cultural enrichment, and social strength. We welcome those who would contribute to the further diversification of our department.

  • The next generation of Dark Energy measurements with supernovae

    Supervisor

    Professor Isobel Hook

    Description

    In the late 1990s Type Ia supernovae were used as standard candles to discover that the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating, leading to the idea that some mysterious "Dark Energy" is pushing the
    universe apart. Despite much better measurements nowadays, our lack of understanding of Dark Energy remains one of the most fundamental problems in Physics.

    Several new telescopes and surveys are being planned to address this issue. The student will use a combination of archival supernova data, new data from state-of-the art telescopes and simulated data to study
    statistical properties of supernovae as distance indicators. Based on these studies, he/she will help to optimise large surveys for cosmology that are planned with future telescopes and instruments, such as LSST (the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope), ESA's Euclid mission and 4MOST (the 4meter Multi-Object Spectrograph Telescope). This project will lead up to the start of operation of these exciting telescopes.

    Please contact Prof Isobel Hook for further information. This PhD project represents just one component of the research performed by the wider Astrophysics group at Lancaster University. Our PhD projects are offered on a competitive basis and are subject to availability of funding. For more general information about PhD study in Physics at Lancaster please contact our postgraduate admissions staff at py-pgadmiss@lancaster.ac.uk. You can also apply directly here stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • The physics of the first galaxies and their evolution in the epoch of re-ionisation

    Supervisor

    Dr David Sobral

    Description

    One of the most exciting open problems in Astrophysics is understanding the nature and evolution of the very first galaxies, stars and black holes, but also how they changed the Universe as a whole and ended the dark ages. This PhD project will allow the student to conduct and explore the largest surveys for very distant galaxies (Lyman-α emitters) and push them to the highest look back times when the Universe was only 700 Myrs or less. The student will reduce, analyse and explore near-infrared photometric data in the COSMOS field from the recently concluded (100%) Y-NBS survey (PI: Sobral) on the Very Large Telescope in Chile, which had an allocation of 50 hours in excellent observing conditions. The Y-NBS survey is the widest ever conducted for distant bright Lyman-α sources, even more distant than the CR7 galaxy (Sobral et al. 2015) and the student is expected to find up to 20 new bright distant galaxies, along with 1000s of other lower redshift starburst galaxies and AGN. The student will also explore our state-of-the-art datasets that have just been obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope, ALMA and with other instruments on the VLT in Chile, to place the newly discovered galaxies into a wider context and test state- of-the-art models. The second part of the project will involve obtaining and exploring follow-up observations, including spectroscopy at a variety of wavelengths with the GTC (on-going program) in La Palma, in order to investigate the physics of the first galaxies. This will involve a close link with photo-ionisation and radiative transfer models and will provide some of the first measurements of the metallicity, ionisation parameters and other properties of early galaxies. The results will provide crucial new information to improve our currently limited understanding of the re-ionisation epoch and how distant bright galaxies may have played a crucial role in such process.

    Please contact Dr David Sobral for further information. This PhD project represents just one component of the research performed by the wider Astrophysics group at Lancaster University. Our PhD projects are offered on a competitive basis and are subject to availability of funding. For more general information about PhD study in Physics at Lancaster please contact our postgraduate admissions staff at py-pgadmiss@lancaster.ac.uk. You can also apply directly here stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • Gas and galaxies at cosmic noon

    Supervisor

    Dr John Stott

    Description

    The majority of the stars in the Universe were formed in an active period 7 to 11 billion years ago, an epoch known as ‘cosmic noon’. The reasons for this enhancement in star formation and its subsequent decline to the present day are not fully understood and so this is a major area of galaxy evolution research. Galaxies are governed by competing physical processes: 1. the fuelling of star formation by gas accreted from the cosmic web and 2. the quenching of star formation by feedback from supernovae and supermassive black holes. Their environment also plays an important role with galaxies in dense clusters quenching at early times.

    This PhD project will use spectroscopy to study the conditions of the gas within galaxies and the gas that surrounds them (the circumgalactic medium) in order to understand the balance of star formation fuelling and feedback at cosmic noon. The quasar sightline technique will be employed, which utilises the intense light from distance accreting supermassive black holes to observe the circumgalactic medium around galaxies along the line-of-sight to Earth. The results of this project will be physically interpreted through comparison with the outputs from state-of-the-art cosmological simulations of galaxy formation.

    Please contact Dr John Stott for further information. This PhD project represents just one component of the research performed by the wider Astrophysics group at Lancaster University. Our PhD projects are offered on a competitive basis and are subject to availability of funding. For more general information about PhD study in Physics at Lancaster please contact our postgraduate admissions staff at py-pgadmiss@lancaster.ac.uk. You can also apply directly here stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • The formation and evolution of the most active star-forming galaxies in the Universe

    Supervisor

    Dr Julie Wardlow

    Description

    Luminous submillimetre-selected galaxies (SMGs) and dusty star-forming galaxies are distant galaxies that are undergoing immense bursts of star formation, with typical star-formation rates of hundreds to thousands of times that of our Milky Way. These extreme systems provide challenging tests of galaxy formation and evolution theories and they seem to represent a key phase in the formation of the most massive local galaxies. However, despite ~20 years of study, they are still somewhat of a mystery -- even the physical process responsible for triggering the activity in SMGs is still a subject of intense debate. This fully-funded PhD project will use data from international facilities, including the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimetre Array (ALMA) and ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), to study the physical conditions in submillimetre galaxies. The results will be used to test theories of the formation and evolution of submillimetre galaxies, and probe whether they are caused by galaxy-galaxy mergers as some simulations suggest.

    Please contact Dr Julie Wardlow for further information. This PhD project represents just one component of the research performed by the wider Astrophysics group at Lancaster University. For more general information about PhD study in Physics at Lancaster please contact our postgraduate admissions staff at py-pgadmiss@lancaster.ac.uk. You can also apply directly here stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

     

  • Galaxy growth and evolution over the last 8 billion years

    Supervisor

    Dr Brooke Simmons

    Description

    Disk galaxies with masses similar to that of the Milky Way are very common in the Universe, and they build up to their masses both by forming new stars in situ and by absorbing the stars from smaller satellite galaxies. Such “minor” (and even “micro”) mergers are likely responsible for a substantial amount of galaxy growth across the full population. The tidal streams from these interactions also remain coherent for billions of years and are extremely valuable as archaeological remnants of galactic formation processes. However, very little is understood about the effect of these minor interactions on galaxy evolution as a whole, because the unique properties of their tidal signatures present significant challenges to both observing them in real galaxies and modelling them with computer simulations.

    With the latest generation of survey telescopes and high-resolution cosmological models, however, that is about to change. This project will therefore combine cutting-edge observational, theoretical and statistical approaches to understanding the growth of disk galaxies via mergers. A key aim is to develop a new analytical tool for quantitatively constraining the merger history of galaxies given their observed tidal features. This will involve hands-on work with large datasets as well as working with and writing code. This analysis package will be of significant interest to the astrophysical community, as will the project’s results applying that code to the latest data from current surveys such as the Dark Energy Survey and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope commissioning surveys, which will commence during the term of this project.

    The student will join multiple established, productive communities, such as the Galaxy Zoo and Horizon-AGN projects. They will likely also have the opportunity to gain hands-on observing experience at world-class telescopes.

    This fully funded project would suit someone with some experience of writing code (Python, Java etc) and, more importantly, with a strong interest in developing that skill for use in statistical analysis of large data sets.

    Please contact Dr Brooke Simmons for further information. This PhD project represents just one component of the research performed by the wider Astrophysics group at Lancaster University. For more general information about PhD study in Physics at Lancaster please contact our postgraduate admissions staff at py-pgadmiss@lancaster.ac.uk. You can also apply directly here stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • Towards the direct discovery of first generation stars in our backyard

    Supervisor

    Dr David Sobral

    Description

    This project will allow the student to take part in a recent hunt for the most metal poor stars up to the outskirts of the halo of our own Milky Way. Finding such extreme stars born in the early Universe but still shinning today allow us to unveil their nature. Most interestingly, very metal-poor stars allow us to become “stellar archeologists” and understand the properties of the very first generation of stars that gave rise to the traces of heavy elements that led to their creation. Potentially, we may be able to find first generation stars which may have survived until today. Finding and studying first-generation stars that may still be shinning in the halo of the Milky Way will be a major breakthrough in Astrophysics, not only to provide new tests and constraints to state-of-the-art models, but also because we will be able to study the generation of stars that literally invented chemistry and that is directly linked with our cosmic origins. The project will involve modelling of several observed and model stars to mimic observations and confront predictions with brand new data taken by us. Data have been taken using the INT telescope in La Palma and the CFHT telescope in Hawaii with narrow-band filters that capture a strong Calcium absorption feature in stars which becomes weaker for the most metal poor stars. Our Lancaster-led data-set is the deepest ever done with this filter in the ultra-violet, and allows us to see metal poor stars individually up to the outskirts of the halo of our Milky Way.

    Please contact Dr David Sobral for further information. This PhD project represents just one component of the research performed by the wider Astrophysics group at Lancaster University. Our PhD projects are offered on a competitive basis and are subject to availability of funding. For more general information about PhD study in Physics at Lancaster please contact our postgraduate admissions staff at py-pgadmiss@lancaster.ac.uk. You can also apply directly here stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

Facilities

Telescope

The Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw Observatory is situated on the roof of the Lancaster University Physics Department. It is named in recognition of Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw's support of the facility.

Overview

The observatory, comprising the telescope, dome and the adjacent laboratory, is named after Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw who donated the original Celestron 11" telescope. She was a former Pro-Chancellor of the University, Lord Mayor of Manchester, outstanding mathematician and a keen amateur astronomer. The observatory was formally opened by Sir Patrick Moore on 20th May 2002.

The main facility of the observatory is now a pier mounted Celestron CGE1400 XLT 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. The dome was designed and built by Dr Glyn Marsh, a prominent local amateur astronomer. Situated on the roof of the Physics Department, the observatory has excellent views of most of the sky. The observatory was first used in 2001 with the MPhys students investigating its capabilities. The prime use at this stage was CCD imaging. Since then, MPhys students have carried out more quantitative investigations into sunspots, high and low resolution spectroscopy, and calibration of the system sensitivity. The observatory is now also used by the recently formed Lancaster University Astronomical Society.

Technical Information

  • Location of the Observatory
  • Latitude 54° 0' 39" N
  • Longitude 2° 47' 03" W

 

Postgraduate Training

The Observational Astrophysics group plans to run training workshops that are dedicated to postgraduate students. These will cover subject-specific and more general research skills. The form and content of these workshops will depend on the needs of individual PhD students.

Additional training is offered by the Faculty of Science and TechnologyISS, and the Library. Our students also have the opportunity to participate in departmental outreach training and to develop their presentation skills via participation in the departmental outreach programme.

Example workshops include:

  • Introduction to astronomical data reduction and analysis tools.
  • Introduction to the Python coding language.

Our students can also apply to attend various national and international schools, including:

  • STFC Introductory and Advanced Summer Schools.
  • NEON observing schools.
  • Data Intensive Science training workshops as part of the STFC Centre for Doctoral Training.