A beam of light leaves a telescope dome at night

Observational Astrophysics

Group Members

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Research Activity

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

Telescope

You will find the Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw Observatory on the roof of the Physics building. It is named in recognition of Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw's support of the facility.

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. Sir Patrick Moore opened the observatory 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. MPhys students first used the telescope in 2001. 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
Students use the telescope

Fellowship Opportunities

We encourage researchers to consider the Lancaster Observational Astrophysics group as a host for prestigious postdoctoral 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 cc'ing Dr John Stott 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 Opportunities

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

Below is a list of our current PhD project opportunities. 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. Once done, please also send an email to Professor Isobel Hook and Dr Brooke Simmons. For your application to be given full consideration please apply by the deadline of 31st January 2022, letters of reference should also be received by the same deadline so please contact your letter writers in advance. Please note that you do not need to provide a research statement in the application and if you state multiple projects from the list below in your personal statement you will be considered for all of them.

If you are interested in applying for a Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship with the Observational Astrophysics group then please email Dr Brooke Simmons by the deadline of 13th December 2021 including (1) a CV; (2) a personal statement of not more than 2 pages detailing your research experience and interests (this is identical to the personal statement required of normal applicants); (3) a statement of not more than 1 page describing how you meet the assessment criteria for the BBGSF; and (4) the contact details of up to 2 references.

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

We do not generally have internal funding for international studentships, but external scholarships may be available. Prospective international students should be aware that deadlines for external scholarships are often months earlier than PhD application deadlines in the normal cycle, so advance planning and early enquiries are helpful. Resources concerning international scholarships change regularly, and we are not able to track all external opportunities for all potential candidates from all countries. However, the Study UK website may be a good starting point for many students.

We hold an Athena SWAN Silver award and JUNO Champion status and are 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.

We occasionally accept MSc by Research students. This is dependent on the availability of a suitable supervisor. Please look at the research pages of potential supervisors in order to find a fit to your interests.

Accordion

  • New surveys for supernovae to study Dark Energy

    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 the Rubin Observatory, 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 Professor 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 on our PhD page stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • Galaxy clusters in the Big Data era with LSST

    Supervisor

    Dr John Stott

    Description

    Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound objects in the Universe, consisting of tens to thousands of galaxies within a relatively small volume. They are used extensively as laboratories for galaxy evolution, as they contain galaxies that have experienced a similar environment and processes over many billions of years. They are also key cosmological indicators with the evolution of the number of galaxy clusters of a given mass being very sensitive to the Dark Matter content of the Universe. Because of their importance for both astrophysics and cosmology it is desirable to obtain large, well understood samples of galaxy clusters over a range of redshifts. The Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST, https://www.lsst.org/) is an imaging survey performed with the Rubin Observatory that will discover thousands of new galaxy clusters, providing such a sample. It will image the entire southern sky with an 8.4m telescope every few nights for 10 years, producing 200 petabytes of imaging data. This will be the state-of-the-art for optical surveys for many years to come.

    This project aims to further develop pre-existing algorithms and machine learning code to identify large numbers of distant galaxy clusters within the LSST survey. These algorithms will be run on existing comparable, but smaller area surveys, and the early-phase of LSST that will begin operation in 2022. The algorithms will be designed so that they can be scaled-up to deal efficiently with the full size of the main LSST survey. The cluster samples generated here will also be used to study the evolution of galaxies in dense environments and potentially cosmology.

    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 on our PhD page stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • The quenching of galaxies in massive clusters

    Supervisor

    Dr John Stott

    Description

    As the Universe ages, galaxies find themselves drawn together into filaments, groups and clusters. Galaxies entering these dense environments can experience processes which ultimately lead to a dramatic change in their appearance and internal properties. This project will discover how galaxies are transformed (`quenched’) from blue star-forming spiral discs (like our own Milky Way) into passive red elliptical galaxies, through interactions with their environment.

    This PhD project will be a detailed study of galaxy transformation with environment, comparing those in massive galaxy clusters to the low density "field" environment. You will use spectroscopy and imaging from Hubble Space Telescope, Very Large Telescope, Subaru telescope and the revolutionary Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST, https://www.lsst.org/). 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 on our PhD page 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 PhD project will use data from international facilities, including the Atacama Large Millimetre/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. 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 on our PhD page stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • The growth of galaxies and supermassive black holes

    Supervisor

    Dr Brooke Simmons

    Description

    Galaxies build up their complex structures over billions of years via a diverse set of processes, including interactions with other galaxies and more solitary in-situ processes. The vast majority of galaxies also host a central supermassive black hole, and these black holes accrete and grow via processes that correlate their masses with the properties of their host galaxies. Some of the most fundamental questions about these processes are not yet answered, such as: how important are galaxy mergers to the co-evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes? By what non-merger processes can a supermassive black hole accrete enough material to sustain the observed range of luminosities at which we observe them? Are the detailed physical processes of normal matter in galaxies critical to the nature of black hole-galaxy correlations, or do such processes depend solely on more fundamental properties driven by the size and shape of the dark matter halo? With the latest generation of telescopes and high-resolution cosmological models, we are starting to answer these questions.

    Investigation of these topics during a PhD project will involve data reduction and analysis of multiwavelength, multi-channel observational data, including spectroscopy and images from the Hubble Space Telescope. A key aim is to isolate and analyse the "merger-free" channel of black hole and galaxy growth, via galaxy morphological indicators. This will involve hands-on work with large datasets as well as working with and writing code. The student will join multiple established, productive communities, such as the Galaxy Zoo project. They will likely also have the opportunity to gain hands-on observing experience at world-class telescopes.

    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. 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 on our PhD page stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

  • Gravitational waves from pulsars

    Supervisor

    Dr Matthew Pitkin

    Description

    Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time emitted by some of the most extreme events in the Universe: colliding black holes and neutron stars. The recent observations of signals from such objects by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave observatories have initiated the era of gravitational-wave astronomy, opening up a new window on the high-energy universe.

    As well as the transient signals observed from such violent collisions, we also expect there to be sources of continuous signals. These would be emitted by deformed rapidly-rotating neutron stars in our own Galaxy, such as those observed electromagnetically as pulsars. This project would primarily involve looking for such signals from a range of known pulsars using data from the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave detectors. The project would also involve work on the astrophysical interpretation of any observed signals, the implications they would have on determining the structure of neutron stars, and the subsequent inference about the physics of the population of pulsars.

    The student would become a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, giving them access to data from the detectors and a range of collaboration computational resources. They would have the opportunity to spend time at one of the LIGO sites. They would be able to get involved in the analysis of some of a large number of transient signals expected to be observed as the observatories reach their design sensitivity.

    The project will involve learning and using Bayesian inference methods. The project will involve software development, primarily in Python, but potential also in C. So, the project would suit someone with a strong interest in learning or developing their coding statistical analysis skills.

    Please contact Dr Matthew Pitkin 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 on our PhD page stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor.

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.

The Faculty of Science and Technology, ISS and the Library offer additional training. Our students also have the opportunity to participate in departmental outreach training and to develop their presentation skills via participation in our outreach programme.

Example workshops include:

  • An introduction to astronomical data reduction and analysis tools
  • An 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