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USQ Centre for Astrophysics – Institute for Advanced Engineering and Space Sciences

Welcome

Welcome to the USQ Centre for Astrophysics. The Centre for Astrophysics is a part of USQ’s Institute for Advanced Engineering and Space Sciences, and our academic staff belong to the USQ School of Sciences.  Our purpose is astronomical and space research that delivers excellence in research outputs, graduate outcomes, funding success, and technological innovation.Our vision is research of the highest international standard, and our performance is top rated as “well above world standard” by the Australian Research Council. Our mission is to serve Australian astronomy and space priorities in research and research training, in areas that include observational astronomy, astrophysics, planetary science, space science, computing and technology, and through collaboration with academe, industry, and government. We hope you enjoy exploring this website and blog, and feel free to get in touch. Prof Brad Carter, Director, on behalf of the team.

Our Research

USQ astrophysics is advancing our understanding of the shared evolution of stars and their planetary systems, and the implications for planetary habitability. We study stellar activity by imaging stars and their magnetic fields using spectra observed in polarised light. We discover, monitor, characterise and model exoplanets orbiting stars other than the Sun, and operate Mt Kent Observatory, a key remote-access southern hemisphere follow-up facility for NASA’s latest exoplanet space telescope. We model the orbital dynamics of planetary systems, using high-performance computing. We collaborate on major national and international stellar surveys, instrumentation development, space debris and meteor tracking, space telescope missions, and on the space industry applications of astronomy. Our publications are on the NASA astrophysics data system and the USQ ePrints service. A short video presentation about our exoplanet research is at: https://www.usq.edu.au/research/astrophysics/new-planets

Mt Kent Observatory

USQ operates Mt Kent Observatory in Queensland, Australia. The site hosts telescopes for the Shared Skies Partnership with the University of Louisville, the MINERVA-Australis telescope array and spectrograph providing ground-based support for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the Australian node of the Stellar Observations Network Group (SONG) asteroseismology network, the Australian node of the DLR SMARTnet space debris tracking network, and the local node of the Global Fireball Observatory. Mt Kent Observatory has an asteroid named after it – discovered in 1993, asteroid ‘11927 Mount Kent’ appears among the ecliptic constellations. Please note that as a university research facility Mt Kent Observatory is not open to the public, but USQ Events and the School of Sciences includes astronomy in their outreach activities.

Mt Kent live site view: http://moondog.astro.louisville.edu/remote/video/index.html

USQ worlds space week 2019 video: https://www.facebook.com/usqedu/videos/457254574883527

Minerva Roos (wallabies) video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJlDmqNZhcM&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2Mg3VldohM5442Kk5cN9nqxpvG0DNoYqVGy1wp0nEFSQVchhBtdXb3TfI

Research Themes

Our research focuses on interrelated projects in stellar astronomy and planetary systems, instrumentation and computing, forming four themes, each with a research leader:

Stellar Astrophysics (A/Prof Stephen Marsden)

This research advances understanding of the magnetic activity of stars and the Sun over time. Observations including spectroscopy, spectropolarimetry and photometry are analysed to construct images of stellar active regions and magnetic fields to study stellar dynamos and how activity and winds as “space weather” may impact orbiting planets. This imaging of stellar activity also enables the detection and characterisation of planets around active stars, to infer the early shared evolution of stars and their planetary systems, including our Solar system.

Exoplanetary Science  (Prof Rob Wittenmyer)

This research detects exoplanets orbiting stars other than the Sun using precise spectroscopic and photometric observations and has contributed to the discovery of more than a hundred such worlds. Physical properties including exoplanet mass, orbit and radius are inferred to make comparisons to Solar system planets and model their interiors and atmospheres. The orbital stability of candidates is calculated to verify exoplanet detection.

Astronomical Instrumentation (Dr Duncan Wright)

Observational astronomy advances through ongoing development of innovative optical instrumentation, enabling telescopes to collect the best available information on targets. In stellar and exoplanet research a spectrum with precisely defined wavelengths and intensities of the highest possible signal to noise ratio is needed. Research into spectroscopic instrumentation has supported multiple projects, most notably providing precise radial velocity exoplanet detections from Mt Kent Observatory’s MINERVA-Australis array.

Computational Astrophysics (Prof Jonti Horner)


Our staff and students make extensive use of USQ’s High Performance Computing cluster for astronomical research. A key research activity is dynamical modelling of the orbital stability of candidate exoplanets to help confirm their discovery. In addition, to trace the evolution of our own planetary system, the dynamical histories and origins of different Solar system asteroid families are modelled, and astrocladistics classification is used to better understand them. Astronomical observations obtained from Mt Kent Observatory and external facilities are processed and analysed using visualisation workstations connected to the cluster.

MINERVA-Australis: a dedicated southern exoplanet observing facility at Mt Kent

NASA’s TESS mission is using transit photometry to detect many exoplanet candidates, and ground-based follow-up radial velocity spectroscopy is needed to confirm and characterise these worlds. USQ has thus led establishment of MINERVA-Australis – the only southern hemisphere exoplanet radial velocity facility dedicated to confirming and characterising TESS planet candidates. MINERVA-Australis is an innovative array of 0.7m CDK700 telescopes that can observe multiple targets at once or combine their light-gathering abilities to put light via optical fibres into its spectrograph. MINERVA-Australis is run by a consortium of research-intensive international and Australian universities, and has gained philanthropic, Australian Research Council and NASA support. The facility is making significant contributions to global efforts to discover and characterise exoplanets around the brightest and nearest stars.

Contact: Prof Rob Wittenmyer

SONG: characterising stellar interiors and exoplanets using Mt Kent Observatory

Mt Kent Observatory now hosts the Australian node of the global Stellar Observations Network Group (SONG) telescope network, an Australian collaboration with Danish astronomers. SONG observations enable seismology of stellar interiors, complementing the work of MINERVA-Australis to deliver new knowledge of the physics and evolution of stars and their exoplanets. SONG Australia is supported by philanthropy and an Australian Research Council grant to a university consortium led by USQ. A similar approach to MINERVA-Australis is used to feed light by optical fibres from CDK700 telescopes to a dedicated spectrograph.

Contact: Prof Rob Wittenmyer

The Shared Skies Partnership: live remote observing from Mt Kent

Shared Skies is a longstanding live remote observing partnership between USQ and the University of Louisville (Kentucky, USA). With three southern-hemisphere, eastern longitude telescopes at Mt Kent Observatory and US telescopes in Arizona and Kentucky, all of the night sky is visible, with remote observers able to observe during local daylight hours. The telescopes are primarily used for the NASA TESS Follow-up Program transit photometry to discover exoplanets, and support student research training, education, and outreach.

Contact: Prof Brad Carter

SMARTnet at Mt Kent Observatory – monitoring geostationary orbital debris

Mt Kent Observatory hosts the Australian space debris optical tracking station of the DLR German Aerospace Center SMARTnet (Small Aperture Robotic Telescope network) program.  Space debris is a significant “Space Situational Awareness” problem for the space industry. SMARTnet is focused on monitoring the geostationary ring of debris in low Earth orbit, and so requires a network of stations to monitor all longitudes of the night sky. SMARTnet at Mt Kent is funded by the DLR for the coming decade, with USQ and DLR scientists working with each other remotely to maintain operations.

Contact: Dr Duncan Wright

The Global Fireball Observatory at Mt Kent – an automated meteor camera

USQ collaborates in the Australian Desert Fireball Network run by Curtin University and the Global Fireball Observatory operating a network of automated sky cameras to observe meteorites falling. Images from different sites enable a fall to be located quickly, so a relatively pristine meteorite is recovered as a useful sample of the early Solar system. Mt Kent Observatory hosts an automated meteor camera that is part of a global network.

Contact: Prof Jonti Horner

Bcool project observations of cool star magnetic fields

Bcool is a multinational, long-term research project observing the activity and magnetic fields of “cool stars” whose surface temperature is similar to the Sun or cooler. This research uses the spectra of stars including those observed in polarised light (spectropolarimetry) and analysis that constructs images (or maps) of stellar surface activity and magnetic fields (Doppler Imaging and Zeeman Doppler Imaging). The results are used to study the internal dynamos that produce stellar magnetic fields and activity, and provide an observational basis for modelling the stellar winds and “space weather” that can impact orbiting planets. Studies of young Solar-type stars trace our Sun’s early history of intense activity. USQ staff are on the Bcool leadership team, and the project is complemented by magnetic studies of other stars.

Contact: A/Prof Stephen Marsden

Galactic archaeology with GALAH at Siding Spring Observatory

GALactic Archaeology with HERMES or “GALAH” is providing a comprehensive view of the formation and evolution of our Milky Way galaxy. GALAH uses the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory and its HERMES spectrograph for a stellar survey complementing the European Space Agency Gaia astrometry mission. The project has received support from the Australian Research Council, and involves a consortium of Australian and international universities, with USQ researchers contributing observations and dynamical modelling.

Contacts: Prof Jonti Horner and Dr Duncan Wright

Veloce instrument at Siding Spring Observatory

Veloce is a spectroscopic instrument built for exoplanet and stellar science with the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, New South Wales, Australia. The Veloce instrument is designed to deliver precise radial velocity observations enabling discovery and characterisation of exoplanets from the host star’s “Doppler wobble” reflex motion. The telescope’s ability to gather light enables observation of relatively faint stars that complement the targeting of brighter targets with MINERVA-Australis. The project is a UNSW collaboration with USQ and other Australian universities, the AAO and international partners. Veloce has received support from the Australian Research Council and project partners. The Anglo-Australian Telescope is operated by an Australian university consortium including USQ.

Contact: Dr Duncan Wright

VeloceRAPTOR facility at Siding Spring Observatory

VeloceRAPTOR is a project to install one or more auxiliary telescopes to feed light to the Veloce spectrograph for stellar and exoplanet research when the Anglo-Australian Telescope makes other observations. VeloceRAPTOR is Macquarie University collaboration with USQ and other partners, and adopts a similar design to MINERVA-Australis. First light will be 2021.

Contact: Dr Duncan Wright

Twinkle Space Mission – space-based spectroscopy of planetary systems

The Twinkle Space Mission (launching 2024) is a 0.45m aperture space telescope for optical to infrared (0.5 to 4.5 micron) spectroscopy of planetary systems. A multi-year survey will provide a large dataset on exoplanets and Solar system asteroids, comets and moons for collaborative research. Twinkle’s infrared spectroscopy, unaffected by Earth’s atmosphere, is important in observing the molecules present in exoplanet atmospheres. The mission is managed by Blue Skies Space Ltd (a University College London, UCL, spin-off) and is supported by the European Space Agency, the UK Space Agency, Innovate UK, UCL and the European Research Council. USQ is a founding member of Twinkle’s survey programme and is able to provide complementary ground-based observations from Mt Kent Observatory. EduTwinkle is a student research experience initiative that is expected to become available in Australia.

Contact: Dr Duncan Wright

Wildfire monitoring from space – industry collaboration with Fireball.International

This industry collaboration is advancing wildfire/bushfire remote sensing using automated deep learning originally developed for astronomy. The technology provides unprecedented early fire early detection and real-time mapping and can use any source of images from remote sensing from a single camera to data fusion from dedicated sensors on towers, aircraft and in space. The benefits of a dedicated large-area wildfire remote sensing satellite also have been shown. The collaboration includes researchers at USQ and other universities in Australia and the USA working with industry partner Queensland/US company Fireball.International.

Contact: Prof Brad Carter

Surveying space resources – industry collaboration with NEORA

This industry collaboration is advancing understanding of space resources through machine learning analysis of Solar system data obtained from telescopic surveys and space missions. The work in progress involves researchers from USQ, CSIRO Data61 at the Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies, UNSW, Curtin University and Queensland company NEORA.

Contact: Prof Jonti Horner

Staff

Astrophysics staff include full-time researchers as well as academics in the School of Sciences.

The Centre also hosts an international network of adjuncts supervising research students.

Current Students

Master of Science (Research)

  • James O’Connor (Applied Research, full-time, on-campus)
  • Tomas Vorobjov (Advanced Research, part-time, external)

PhD (full-time) (on-campus unless otherwise indicated)

  • Emma Brown (external)
  • Jake Clark
  • Dag Evensberget
  • Alexis Heitzmann
  • Timothy Holt (external)
  • Suzanne Knight
  • Nataliea Lowson
  • Jack Soutter (Okamura, also staff)

PhD (part-time) (external unless otherwise indicated)

  • Tania Ummee Ahmed (on-campus)
  • Mark Beavis
  • Donna Burton
  • Cristian-Felipe Chavez
  • Greg Davis
  • John Drummond
  • Adriana Errico
  • John Gianforte
  • Kelvin Getley
  • Shelly Grist (on-campus, also staff)
  • Shane Hengst
  • Rod Letchford
  • Alan Payne
  • Dan Peluso
  • Greg Perugini
  • John Seach
  • Christopher Tylor
  • John Weir
  • Shelley Zaleski

Future Students

USQ offers traditional on-campus full-time study, or external or part-time studies. Applications to study for PhD studies in astrophysics are made on a competitive basis, so the applicant would normally be expected to qualify for support for their research through an Australian government Research Training Program or USQ domestic scholarship, or one of USQ’s highly competitive international scholarships. USQ astrophysics research students have access to a range of facilities including Mt Kent Observatory, research computing hardware and software, and professional journal publications.

The following USQ site, updated periodically, lists currently available research topics:

https://fyrt.usq.edu.au/

For more information on the PhD application process please visit the following site:

https://www.usq.edu.au/study/degrees/doctor-of-philosophy

For more information on USQ studies please visit:

Please note – for those seeking professional development in astrophysics to complement their existing qualifications with coursework and research, USQ offers a Master of Science (Astrophysics) and feeder Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma programs:

https://www.usq.edu.au/study/degrees/master-of-science/astrophysics

The Master of Science (Astrophysics) offers less stringent entry requirements compared to those of the Master of Science (Research), so that students from different professional backgrounds have the opportunity to study astrophysics externally at USQ.

Community Outreach

Astrophysics staff and students are active in astronomy outreach, and some examples follow.

The Conversation website

https://theconversation.com/profiles/jonti-horner-3355

https://theconversation.com/profiles/jake-clark-391989

https://theconversation.com/institutions/university-of-southern-queensland-1069

Please note: as a university research facility Mt Kent Observatory is not open to the public, but USQ Events and the School of Sciences includes astronomy in their outreach activities.

Contact Us

Social media

https://www.facebook.com/minervaaustralis/