Research Themes

Our research focuses on interrelated projects in stellar astronomy and planetary systems, instrumentation, and computing, forming four themes

Stellar Astrophysics

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.

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Exoplanetary Science

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.

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Astronomical Instrumentation

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.

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Computational Astrophysics

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.

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Key Research Projects

Shared Skies Partnership

The Shared Skies Partnership

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.

Photo: The Shared Skies CDK700 0.7m telescope at Mt. Kent by D. Martinelli/USQ

Shared Skies Partnership

SONG

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.

Photo: An artist’s view of stellar seismology: stellar spectra measure surface oscillations from internal sound waves whose behaviour probes the star. Understanding the star helps us better understand any orbiting planets by G. Perez Diaz/IAC

Shared Skies Partnership

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.

Photo: A 0.8m telescope of the type to be installed for VeloceRAPTOR by ASA AstroSysteme Austria/VEGA Sternwarte Salzburg

Shared Skies Partnership

The Global Fireball Observatory at Mt Kent

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.

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS).

Shared Skies Partnership

SMARTnet at Mt Kent Observatory

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.

Photo: The DLR SMARTnet optical space debris tracking station at Mt Kent Observatory, awaiting a break in the weather (B. Carter/USQ).

Shared Skies Partnership

MINERVA - Australis

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.

Photo: The MINERVA-Australis telescope array of 0.7m CDK700 telescopes (D. Martinelli/USQ).

Shared Skies Partnership

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.

M. Weiss / Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Shared Skies Partnership

Twinkle Space Mission

The Twinkle Space Mission (planned launch currently 2023) is a 0.45m 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.

Artist’s impression of the Twinkle spacecraft (Credit: Twinkle/UCL/SSTL/Blue Skies Space).

Shared Skies Partnership

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.

The 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring (Astronomy Australia Limited).

Shared Skies Partnership

Galactic Archaeology with GALAH

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.

Siding Spring Observatory with the dome of the Anglo-Australian Telescope in the foreground (Ssopete/Wikipedia).