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Exploring the Solar System's Small Body Reservoirs with Rubin Observatory

Exploring the Solar System's Small Body Reservoirs with Rubin Observatory


Starting in 2025, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and its Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) will generate the biggest astronomical dataset to date and create the largest catalog of Solar System bodies. The LSST will survey the visible night sky every ~3 nights, covering a 3.5-degree field in a single exposure down to 24.7 mag in r-band. The LSST will produce an unprecedented dataset to explore the Solar System’s inventory. The survey will discover ~6 million asteroids, 40,000 Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), over 10,000 comets, and tens of interstellar objects (ISO; interlopers passing though the Solar System that have been ejected from other planetary systems). This is an order of magnitude more objects than are currently known in each of the Solar System’s small body reservoirs today. Each Solar System object will receive hundreds of photometric and astrometric measurements, divided across the 6 filters. LSST will go beyond just discovery, with a 10-year baseline LSST will be able to measure broad-band optical colors and phase curves, and monitor these objects capturing episodes of cometary activity, changes in orbit, asteroid collisions, rotational breakup events, and rotational brightness variations. The small bodies in the Solar System are the bricks and mortar left over after the construction of planets. Their compositions, shapes, densities, rotation rates, and orbits help reveal their formation history, the architecture of their parent planetary system, the conditions in the planetesimal-forming disk, and the processes active in the Solar System today.

The Project:

This PhD project is expected to overlap with the first few years of the LSST survey and explore this ground-breaking new dataset. There is some flexibility depending on the exact interests of the student in terms of which avenues will be explored in this project. This could be looking for outlier surfaces in the Kuiper belt or placing estimates on the size distribution of Manx (rocky tailless comets in the Oort cloud). The project will focus on developing analysis tools and utilities for LSST Solar System science in the year leading up to the start of the survey (expected to begin at the end of 2025), including expanding the functionality of Sorcha. Sorcha is an open-source python survey simulator being developed at Queen's that will take any input model small body population and bias it to what LSST would have detected utilizing the LSST pointing history, observation metadata, and search algorithm detection efficiency. Then these simulated detections can be compared to what LSST actually discovered to determine whether they are drawn from the same parent population.

Queen’s University Belfast is a member of the ATLAS survey, and the Solar System group is a member of the LOOK (LCO [Las Cumbres Observatory] Outbursting Objects Key) Project. We expect this project could involve analysing data from LOOK, the ATLAS survey, and/or public ZTF (Zwicky Transient Facility) data as well. There are likely to be opportunities with this project for observations at UK-supported telescopes and observatories around the world.

More Information

 Supervisor: Dr. Meg Schwamb (