Research themes

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:

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.