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Case studies

12 April, 2016

Finding Global Benefits Through Solar Imaging

Dr David Jess, Astrophysics Research Centre

On a computer screen on his desk Dr David Jess runs a video and immediately there is a violent blaze of colour – the turmoil of the surface of the sun. But David points to a small black spot. ‘That’s where my research interest lies.’

David is adding a new layer to the work of the Solar Physics Group at Queen’s. ‘I’m looking at these faint structures. I want to see what impact they have on mass and energy flowing through the sun’s atmosphere but they move quickly, they migrate and evolve, and you have to take very rapid images.’

To do so, he has been working with Andor Technology (now an Oxford Instruments company), the global instrument company that has its origins at Queen’s, to build his own imaging system. That has led to further success because it has now been commissioned as a common-user instrument in major facilities such as the Dunn Solar Telescope in New Mexico.

‘Being able to build my own imaging system in order to answer my own specific questions means I can put the emphasis on the things we really need to look for. The images we’re getting are sensational and it’s also encouraging that research groups throughout the world see the potential of our system. That is good for Queen’s.

‘These small-scale structures are the building blocks of the larger solar features. If we understand how they release their energy we can understand bigger events better. Solar flares send vast amounts of charged particles across space. If one of these is directed towards earth it can have huge implications and with so many satellites in space providing our communications, we’re now more vulnerable.’

A Queen’s graduate, David now holds an advanced STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellowship. For his PhD in 2005 he was sponsored jointly by Queen’s and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington. Subsequently he was employed as instrument scientist for ROSA – Rapid Oscillations in the Solar Atmosphere – at the US National Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak. He has previously been an STFC Post- Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s and a Marie Curie Fellow at Leuven in Belgium.

‘Queen’s is a leader in the acquisition and analysis of data while Leuven is a big player in theoretical understanding. That’s why I wanted to go there.’

Of his personal progress, he says, ‘I’ve been nurtured by Queen’s. During my PhD I had two supervisors from NASA and two from Queen’s – Professor Francis Keenan and Professor Mihalis Mathioudakis – and they are still important colleagues. I’ve been very fortunate.

‘Thanks to my current Fellowship I now have a five-year independent research programme with funding that allows me to hire my own postdoctoral researchers. My goal was not to come back to Queen’s and continue with research that other members of the group are doing, but to use my new-found knowledge and theory, as well as the expertise in instrumentation that I gained at NASA, to take us in a slightly different direction.’

And there have been unexpected benefits – in a more down-to-earth way – through new links with another successful local enterprise, Randox Laboratories, the world-leading diagnostics company.

‘They use chemiluminescence on patient samples but sometimes they’re dealing with very faint sources. We’re looking at the possibility of employing our research, not only in the astrophysics environment, but in the world of public health to help maximise the amount of detail they can extract from these faint signatures.

‘This may have important implications for patient benefit and it is a truly multidisciplinary approach, bringing astrophysics, biomedical sciences and chemistry together.’