March 2017 Newsletter

Director's Corner

Michael Garrett

It is now almost exactly 6 months since I took up the position of Director of Jodrell Bank Centre of Astrophysics (JBCA) and Sir Bernard Lovell chair of Astrophysics. It has been great honour for me to take up this appointment, and I have greatly enjoyed meeting new and old colleagues alike – I’d like to thank everyone for a very warm welcome both in Manchester and Jodrell Bank!

JBCA is one of the largest astrophysics groups in the UK, and it also has the responsibility of operating the e-MERLIN/VLBI National Facility and the Lovell Telescope. JBCA boasts two locations – the Alan Turing Building (ATB) on the main University Campus (just off Oxford Road), and the Jodrell Bank Observatory (JBO).

JBCA is also part of the University of Manchester’s School of Physics & Astronomy. I see this as a huge advantage - we comprise about 1/3 of the School and we are active in all areas – undergraduate teaching, supervision of post-graduate students, fundamental research, public outreach, school management and industrial engagement. In total, we have ~130 staff located at the ATB (including 55 post–graduate students) and 60 staff at JBO (including 15 working for the SKA Signal & Data Transport Consortium). Many staff split themselves between both sites, and the Observatory continues to see regular visits from students, including many under–graduates. JBCA is a fantastic environment in which to work, and we see many visitors passing through the UK ALMA Regional Centre and the Interferometry Centre of Excellence (ICE). Our scientists have also been very successful in attracting external funding from STFC and the various EC opportunities - Ben Stappers, Jens Chluba and Rene Breton have been recently awarded ERC grants, bringing the total number of ERC awards at JBCA to 7. The need to ensure that our academic staff in the ATB are well connected to the telescope facilities at Jodrell Bank has also been identified – we hope to appoint academic staff that will make extensive use of the Lovell telescope and the e-MERLIN/VLBI National Facility. This will also strengthen our ability to fully exploit the SKA telescope when it becomes operational some time in the next decade.

A recent focus of the organisation is looking at potential upgrades to the e-MERLIN telescope, and the continuation of operational funding of the national facility. A meeting with the e-MERLIN community was organised in September, and the ideas that arose there have formed the basis of an impressive upgrade plan for e-MERLIN national facility. The upgrade plan is modular in nature but major aspects include: (i) the construction of new receivers that would give us almost continuous frequency coverage from 1-24 GHz, (ii) broad banding of the data transmission system to 8GHz (iii) replacement of the Defford telescope and an extension of the longest baseline via the inclusion of the Goonhilly Telescope in Cornwall, and (iv) the incorporation of the Lovell Telescope in e-MERLIN with a PAF system that would greatly expand the full array’s field of view. These are all extremely exciting new avenues to explore, and would address many important science questions in areas such as planetary formation processes, Pulsars and transient radio sources in general. For example, the combined LT+PAF/e-MERLIN system would be a great instrument to both detecting and precisely locating Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). A statement of interest, with significant community involvement, was recently submitted to STFC, and we have been asked to prepare a more detailed proposal. This is great news but we have a lot of work to do in order to meet the April 25 deadline!

Meanwhile, the University is also set to make a massive £7M investment into the Lovell Telescope. The aim is to give the telescope a major upgrade that would see it through the coming decade with ease – items to be addressed include the replacement of the original 1957 surface, repairs to part of the telescope structure (the wheel girder) and overall strengthening of the site foundations. The work is likely to start fairly soon, so there will be implications for our observing programme over the next few years.

In addition to the Observatory, the Jodrell Bank site also hosts the Discovery Centre led by Prof. Teresa Anderson, and the Headquarters of the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) led by Prof. Phil Diamond. This Jodrell Bank Campus brings together several important elements – Outreach, Fundamental Scientific Research, Advanced Technology Development and Innovation – in this case, the whole really is very much more than the sum of the parts. We have a way to go before we fully realise the enormous potential of the "Jodrell Campus" but identifying the key ingredients and improving cooperation between the various parties (including potential funding agents and industrial engagement) is an important first step.

As you can see there is a lot to do, and we are enthusiastic to get on with the job!

Prof. Michael Garrett

Jo Johnson MP visit to Jodrell Bank and SKA

Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson MP, learnt more about the UK’s role in cutting-edge space exploration yesterday (9 February) as he toured The University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory and the international headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array, the project to build the world's largest radio telescope.  

Mr Johnson was in Cheshire as the Government announced a new £10 million scheme to incentivise the commercial spaceflight market and to see the ways in which the UK is leading international astronomical research, by meeting with scientists at Jodrell Bank working on the UK’s e-MERLIN telescope and the Square Kilometre Array.

As part of the tour Mr Johnson climbed the giant Lovell Telescope, an icon of UK science and engineering and one of the biggest and most powerful radio telescopes in the world. Jodrell Bank has been at the forefront of world radio astronomy for over 70 years and is now on the UK shortlist for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

As well as important scientific research, the site is also home to a Discovery Centre which attracts 165,000 visitors each year, including 22,000 school pupils on educational visits. The Centre organises a range of public events including the bluedot festival of science, music and culture.

Full details of the Minister's visit, and a full gallery of photos are available on the School of Physics & Astronomy website.

e-MERLIN & JBO in the SKA era

Astronomers at the JBO in the SKA Era workshop

On 15th and 16th September 2016, members of the UK astronomical community took part in a workshop at Jodrell Bank Observatory discussing the role of e-MERLIN and the Lovell Telescope in the era of the Square Kilometre Array.

The UK is playing a significant role in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. The international headquarters of the SKA Organisation is based in the UK at Jodrell Bank, and the UK is leading the international investment in the SKA as well as making significant contributions to its design and to its science exploitation.

e-MERLIN, the UK's National Radio Astronomy facility, and the 76-m Lovell Telescope constitute major radio astronomical facilities providing sub-arcsecond resolution imaging capabilities and state-of-the-art pulsar time-domain capabilities. Both are unique and world-class facilities and in combination have 25% of the collecting area of SKA1-mid with similar baseline and frequency coverage making them a powerful standalone instrument and pathfinder for SKA science.‌

Over two days, the workshop discussed the latest science results from e-MERLIN and the Lovell Telescope and the development of radio telescopes in the UK for the next era of Radio Astronomy.

A full list of talks and slides is available here.

New CEO of STFC visits Jodrell Bank

Brian Bowsher STFC

Dr. Brian Bowsher (new CEO of the Science & Technology Funding Council) visited us on Thursday 2 February - hopefully he got a good view of all the activities at the Jodrell Bank site; the Observatory, the Discovery Centre and the SKA HQ - not to mention the synergies between all three!

Vice-President of the Royal Society at JBO

Vice-President of the Royal Society at JBO

We welcomed the vice-president of the Royal Society, Prof. Alex Halliday, to Jodrell Bank on Tuesday 28 February. After a tour of the Discovery Centre, he was give an overview of the Science programme of JBCA and the Observatory, including a presentation by Royal Society Research Fellow, Dr. Jens Chluba.

The visit culminated with a trip up the telescope and a meeting in the telescope control room with Prof. Sir Francis Graham-Smith (FRS), second director of Jodrell Bank. Graham quipped that he hadn't noticed the telescope getting any smaller during his time at JBO.

JBCA Internal Symposium

JBCA Internal Symposium 2016
Staff and research students at the JBCA Internal Symposium 2016 (Photo credit: Anthony Holloway)

Our annual JBCA Internal Research Symposium was held on Monday 31 October 2016, in the University of Manchester's historic Sackville St Building. 

The day featured over 80 talks from our academic staff, research fellows and assistants and postgraduate students. The Director, Associate Directors, Group and Centre Leaders gave overview talks, highlighting the work in their area over the last year and providing an update on what's to come. In addition, every researcher gave a 1-minute summary of a current research project.

CMBSPEC ERC Consolidator Grant

Jens Chluba

Jens Chluba has recently been awarded an European Research Council Consolidator Grant for his proposal entitled CMBSPEC. This 5-year project has the goal to explore new theoretical and experimental problems related to spectral distortions of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), an old relic from the early hot phase of the Big Bang.

Since the observations of the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer in the 90’s we know that the average CMB spectrum is extremely close to that of a perfect blackbody radiator at a temperature of 2.726 K. However, several early-universe processes are expected to lead to tiny departures from this spectral shape – so called CMB spectral distortions. These primordial signals could deliver new insights to inflation and particle physics. Through the ERC grant, JBCA is now at the forefront of theoretical activities in this field, and strongly involved in the planning and design of future experiments targeting these unique signals.

The grant will fund 4-5 PDRAs as well as high performance computing equipment to carry out involved numerical calculations with the vision to transform the young emerging field of CMB spectral distortion studies into a mature scientific discipline and train the next leaders in the field.

MeerTRAP ERC Advanced Grant


Ben Stappers has recently been awarded an European Research Council Advanced Grant for his project entitled MeerTRAP. This 5 year project will use the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, a path-finder for the Square Kilometre Array, to search for new pulsars and fast transients. The grant will fund PDRAs, PhD students as well as high performance computing equipment to enable the real-time search. MeerTRAP recognises the great flexibility possible in the signal processing of radio telescope data that allows for commensal observing, it will therefore piggyback on the majority of MeerKAT observations to greatly enhance the amount of on-sky time, crucial for finding the elusive fast radio bursts for example.

The hardware will also allow one to expand the field-of-view of the telescope for high time resolution studies and provide a so-called transient buffer, which can capture up to 30s of data from all of the telescopes. This buffer will allow one to effectively look back in time to when a transient occurs and allow these data to make an image of the sky at the time of the transient. This in turn will allow for precision localisation and thus identification of any host galaxy.

Identification of a host will provide an independent distance estimate and thus allow the fast radio bursts to be able to be used to search for the missing baryons in the universe and to start to build the large sample needed for studies of dark energy. The long dwell times and repeat visits to different parts of the sky that the commensal observations allow will provide excellent sensitivity to all classes of pulsars that show significant variability in their radio flux or their detectability. One of the most interesting of these would be pulsars in eccentric, short, orbits with massive companion stars and potentially black holes. These systems are ideal test laboratories for gravity.

This work will be performed in collaboration with researchers and engineers at SKA-SA, MPIfR and Oxford University.

SPIDERS ERC Starter Grant

Rene Breton - SPIDERS ERC

JBCA's Rene Breton's has been successfully awarded an ERC Starter Grant for his proposal entitled SPIDERS. This will be a 5-year project, and aims to study fundamental physics using black widow, redback and transitional pulsar binaries.

In recent years, a growing class of compact pulsar binaries has been identified mainly due to gamma-ray observations. The low-mass stellar companions in these systems are being gradually destroyed by the energetic pulsars, hence their deadly spiders monikers. These binaries display a range of behaviours such as radio eclipses and optical variability which are suitable to measure the mass of the pulsar in these binaries, high-energy interactions with a stellar companion and binary evolution. They are therefore excellent proxies to investigate physics under extreme conditions of gravity, density and magnetic field.

The grant will enable Rene to build a team of 2 PhD students and 2 PDRAs. It will provide support to obtain state-of-the-art observational data and obtain high performance computing equipment in order to unveil the secrets about the nature of these pulsar spiders.

LOFAR MSSS: Discovery of a 2.56 Mpc giant radio galaxy associated with a disturbed galaxy group

Discovery of a giant radio galaxy in MSSS

LOFAR's Multifrequency Snapshot Sky Survey (MSSS) has resulted in the discovery and detailed study of a new 2.56 Mpc giant radio galaxy (GRG) associated with a disturbed galaxy group (UGC 9555). This image illustrates the huge extent of radio emission, stretching larger on the sky than the full moon. LOFAR contours are displayed in white, and the VLA's NVSS 1.4 GHz survey in red. The inset shows the host galaxy group. Lime green contours from FIRST show compact radio emission from the AGN and its jet. Coloured contours are smoothed SDSS bands, indicating the disturbed nature of the group that hosts this interesting radio source.

The paper describing the discovery of the GRG, along with a description of the very interesting host galaxy group and the large-scale structure in that region of the cosmos, has recently been accepted for publication in A&A (Clarke et al. 2017; It will be followed up with a detailed analysis of the morphology and evolution of the source, based on a high-resolution LOFAR observation motivated by the MSSS discovery.

Resolving magnetic structures in the disk-halo interface of NGC 628 with the JVLA

NGC628 - Optical: Carlo Alto Obs, Steve Mazlin & Vicent Peris. Radio: JVLA, Melcahy et al. 2017.
The above picture shows an optical image of the face-on spiral galaxy NGC628 as observed with the Calar Alto 1.23-m telescope in Spain, superimposed with flow lines showing the direction of the ordered large-scale magnetic field as observed with the Jansky Very Large Array (JVLA) at radio frequencies between 2-4 GHz.

Spiral galaxies host large-scale magnetic fields that evolve over millions of years via turbulence in the Interstellar Medium (ISM) and the rotation of the galaxy itself. These galactic-sized magnetic fields contain an ordered component, primarily located in the regions between the spiral arms, where randomness imposed by the star formation process is low. Such ordered magnetic fields and their directionality can be efficiently observed with cm-wavelength radio synchrotron radiation, and its degree of linear polarisation.

Using the new state of the art Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (JVLA) in New Mexico, David Mulcahy from Jodrell Bank with collaborators from Germany and Australia observed the nearby face-on spiral galaxy NGC 628. Owing to the large bandwidth of the JVLA receiving system, they were able to obtain some of the most sensitive radio continuum images in both total and linearly polarised intensity of any external galaxy observed so far. This new work has recently been accepted for publication by Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Until now NGC628 has been relatively unexplored in radio continuum and studying a face-on galaxy like NGC628 is essential so that the magnetic field components can be separated in 3D. With its extended neutral hydrogen disk and lack of active star formation in its central region, this galaxy has produced a wealth of interesting magnetic phenomena. Utilising novel analysis techniques, the authors observe evidence for two drivers of magnetic turbulence in the disk-halo connection of NGC628, namely, Parker instabilities and superbubbles.

Such disk-halo outflows have important consequences for mean-field dynamo theory, a process which involves the inductive effect of turbulence and differential rotation to amplify the weak magnetic fields to produce strong large-scale fields.

Reference Mulcahy, Beck and Heald, 2017, A&A 

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