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Summer Student Projects 2023


Using Gaia to assess planet candidates from the Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS)

Supervisors: David Jackson, Sean O’Brien & Prof. Chris Watson


The field of exoplanets is one of the most exciting and rapidly growing fields in astronomy today. The first exoplanets were discovered just over 30 years ago and since then over 5300 exoplanets have been confirmed to date. The Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) is a ground-based survey located in Chile that has discovered tens of exoplanets and hundreds of planetary candidates. However, to get accurate measurements of planetary parameters, we must also have accurate stellar parameters for the stars that they orbit. The space observatory Gaia has measured the positions, distances and motions of approximately 2 billion stars with unprecedented precision since its launch in 2013.


This project will involve using Gaia to investigate if there are any biases or correlations in the stars that NGTS finds planets/planetary candidates around compared to the full NGTS sample. This project will have some flexibility and the successful candidate should have opportunities to get involved directly with the NGTS planet discovery and vetting process. Experience with computer programming and python is beneficial while familiarity with astronomy and/or exoplanets is helpful, but not required.




Solar System Moving Object Observing Tools

Supervisor: Dr Meg Schwamb

Project Description:

The small bodies within our Solar System are the bricks and mortar left over from the construction zones of our planets.  By studying the ensemble properties (shapes, sizes, compositions, orbits, and other physical characteristics) of these planetesimals, we can probe the giant planets’ early dynamical history, explore the compositional structure of the Solar System’s primordial planetesimal disk, and study the evolution of the Solar System over time. The majority of these objects are too faint for spectroscopy with ground-based telescopes, but by measuring broad-band colours in different optical and near-infrared filters, we obtain a proxy for a planetesimal’s surface composition. By measuring the brightness of a planetesimal over time, we can estimate shape and measure rotation rates. With deep optical imaging, we can look for faint features associated with comet-like activity and explore how often these objects experience outgassing of water ice and other volatile species.

As these planetesimals move across the sky, observing them with ground and space-based telescopes has challenges including the need to avoid observing at times when the object is close to a very bright star that will cause internal reflections within the telescope or when the object is crossing over a faint background star that will contaminate the photometric measurements. The project will involve developing python tools for planning and scheduling observations of Solar System small bodies. This will include tools to identify optimal periods of time to observe known Solar System small bodies, generating star charts (deep archival stacked images of the camera footprint at the location on-sky where the moving object is expected to be), and identifying the optimal set of on-sky pointings for a given telescope and camera to track the moving object over a period of time For very advanced students, there will also be additional scope in the project to help with software tools that the Wider Solar System group is developing

Required background

This project will mostly involve python programming and LINUX/UNIX operating systems. Experience with computer programming and python is a plus.  Familiarity with astronomy or planetary science is helpful, but not required.




Astronomy Outreach and Public Engagement

Supervisors: Joseph Murtagh, Sean O’Brien, Thomas Moore, Harry Greatorex, Dr. Meg Schwamb


In the modern era of science, an often under looked part of our research involves effectively conveying our research through graphical means, such as posters. The ability to effectively summarise and communicate your work to all ages and all academic backgrounds is a crucial part of being a researcher. We are seeking a student who will help create resources for scientific outreach in astrophysics, which can then be presented to the general public.


The initial goal of this project is to create high quality A2 posters summarising the different activities and outputs of the research groups within the Astrophysics Research Centre (ARC) for future outreach use. In creating these posters, you will be directly interacting with the four key research groups that operate within ARC, gaining a deeper understanding of what working as a research astronomer is like. In addition, successful candidates will also see scope to produce additional outreach materials, for example buttons, stickers – this will depend on the individual candidate’s interests. The outreach materials created will help us promote and exhibit the work being done within ARC for the years to come.


The ideal candidate will have experience in some form of creative output, in particular in producing poster creations in e.g., PowerPoint, Adobe Illustrator, or any other preferred method. A familiarity with the research areas within ARC is helpful but is not considered necessary - you will be guided through the different research groups by your supervisors.




Revealing the true nature of Solar Magnetism

Supervisors: Dr. Samuel Grant, Prof. David Jess & Dr. Shahin Jafarzadeh (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany)


The key to modern solar physics is understanding the interactions of plasma in the atmosphere of our nearest star. Our only diagnostic is the light emitted from the solar surface and the spectral lines formed as it propagates through the atmosphere. Using cutting-edge observations allied with advanced physical modelling we have been able to begin to infer the velocities, densities and associated magnetic fields of solar plasma, however the emerging picture is proving more complex than theory suggests. Solar magnetism above the surface tends to collate into cylindrical ‘tubes’ extending vertically, with an expansion as a function of height. However, recent observations seem to suggest further physical factors are at play.


In this project, observations from the Swedish Solar Telescope (SST) will be utilised, centred on a region of diverse magnetism, with dozens of flux tubes known as magnetic pores dotted across the field of view. Alongside intensity observations, inferences of the magnetic field and velocity of the plasma have been calculated. The student will conduct a novel study into the geometry of these structures, seeking complexities that depart from a traditional understanding of magnetic activity. They will also conduct analysis into the wave activity within the pores, to better our understanding of energy transfer in MHD plasmas, of interest across a wealth of astronomical scales. This work will be conducted as part of the WAves in the Lower Solar Atmosphere (WaLSA; team, so the student will have the opportunity to learn and collaborate with subject experts from a number of institutions


Contact Dr. Samuel Grant ( for further information


Required Background:

The project will be centred around IDL and/or Python programming.  Programming experience, though beneficial, is not necessary, however an interest in developing your skills is preferential. Communication of results with external collaborators will be key towards the end of the project.




Creating a super spectral library for the new era of transient classification

Supervisors: Michael Fulton, Prof. Stephen Smartt, Dr. Matt Nicholl & Dr. David Young.



Supernovae are the explosive deaths of stars, occurring at the endpoint of massive stars’ lives or in certain kinds of binary star systems, as recent studies have shown. Understanding the different types and abundance of supernovae is essential to understanding the chemical evolution of our universe: many of the heavy elements we find on Earth have been synthesised during supernova explosions, and certain types of supernovae have shown that we live in an expanding universe.

The current generation of wide field-of-view sky surveys such as ATLAS, Pan-STARRS, PTF and ZTF are yielding observational data of unprecedented quantity and quality. Thanks to these, we have discovered not only new types of supernovae but also new kinds of extragalactic transients over the last decade, such as kilonovae (the explosion from two neutron stars colliding) and tidal disruption events (the energy emitted from a supermassive black hole accreting a nearby star). With these new discoveries come new challenges, especially for transient classification. Many of the existing classification tools cannot identify these new kinds of transients, which poses a problem for the Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) era. LSST is going to transform the field of transient astronomy. The Rubin Observatory is an 8.4-m telescope, and starting in June 2024, will spend the next ten years surveying the entire night sky visible every three nights. This will increase the current rate of transient discovery from tens of thousands of events per year to one million events per year. Therefore, we must have systems capable of classifying all of these events in place beforehand.


Project Description:

The student will be tasked with creating a massive spectral library to update one of the most widely used transient classification tools: SuperNova IDentification aka SNID. SNID is an algorithm based on correlation techniques which quantify the quality of a comparison between the input and template spectra. SNID was initially written to determine redshifts of Type Ia supernovae but has since been expanded to include the more commonly occurring supernovae types (such as Type Ibc’s and Type II’s) and allows for distinguishing between these different types.

The project will involve analysing and interpreting optical and infrared spectra across the entire range of known extragalactic transients, creating spectral templates and compiling them into a single library for expanding SNID even further. Doing so will require a combination of gathering/analysis of photometric and spectroscopic data from many past classification surveys. This spectral library will then need to be integrated onto our teamwide version of SNID to be used during the LSST-era alongside SOXS. Additionally, the spectral library will be made publicly available on GitHub, which we will announce through a small publication. There will also be the opportunity to participate in our daily “eyeballing” of ATLAS data to discover new supernovae events in real time.


Required Background:

This project will involve Python programming and LINUX/UNIX operating systems; experience with such is a plus. Familiarity with astronomy and high-energy astrophysics will be helpful but not required.