Research projects

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