Dissertation projects for the MSc by Research in Astronomy & Astrophysics
Below are some of the MSc(R) projects for this coming year (2013/2014). We will try to keep this list updated, particularly on the lead up to the beginning of the first semester (15th September 2014). However, we encourage prospective MSc(R) students to speak with as many of our academic staff, as early as possible, to find out what we do and to see if there are possible MSc(R) projects available - this list is unlikely to be comprehensive. Note that supervisors and projects should be decided within the first 1-2 weeks of the first semester and they should inform the MSc(R) course director (Dr. Clive Dickinson).
e-MERLIN studies of compact ultra-steep spectrum sources.Supervisors: Dr Megan Argo & Dr Rob Beswick
Ultra-steep spectrum (USS) sources are an enigmatic class of object. Defined as having unusually steep radio spectra and compact morphologies on arcsecond scales, these sources are generally not detected outside the radio regime, and no redshift information is known, making them exceedingly difficult to classify. Suggestions for their nature include high-redshift radio galaxies located at or near the epoch of re-ionisation, pulsars, young obscured radio galaxies, and quasars with steep spectrum cores. So far, such sources have received little attention since the number of such sources observed has been too small to draw robust statistical conclusions, although with the advent of new telescopes such as LOFAR and MWA which are surveying large areas of the sky at low frequencies, many more examples of such sources are likely to be discovered in the near future. Whilst the nature of these sources is, as yet, unknown, recent VLBI observations of a small sample have shown that a significant fraction are compact on milli-arcsecond scales but with less than 30% of the flux recovered, suggesting that there is source structure on spatial scales to which the e-MERLIN array is best sensitive.
We have now been allocated observing time to investigate a much larger sample with e-MERLIN, and this project will focus on these observations. Selected from four large catalogues, we have a sample of 73 candidate sources which are compact on arcsecond scales and have low-frequency spectral indices <-1.3 between 74 and 330 MHz. Our aim is to observe the suitable candidates in this sample in order to examine their morphologies on intermediate spatial scales, confirm that their spectral indices stay steep at 1.4GHz, and create a sample of sufficiently compact sources for further VLBI follow-up. This new information will allow us to more thoroughly investigate this intriguing class of sources and narrow down the possibilities for their origin.
Variability of compact components in nearby starburstsSupervisors: Dr Megan Argo & Dr Rob Beswick
Starburst galaxies are so named because they contain significantly elevate rates of star-formation which over a relatively modest timescales, in astronomical terms, will exhaust the their gas and dust supplies. Within these sources the significant dust and material means that their centres are often obscured from view at optical wavelengths. However high resolution radio observations are able to penetrate this material and view the active star-formation within. In starburst galaxies the majority compact radio sources are the direct result of this star-formation. These sources are usually the remenant shells of individual massive supervnovae, and in some case new supernovae that have recently exploded, and HII regions where star-formation is ongoing. This project will use and extensive, multi-frequency radio data set comprising of VLA and MERLIN monitoring over a 5 period with a cadence of 3 months of a sample of nearest and most active starburst galaxies. Numerous radio supernova remnants are present in these data, along with new radio supernova themselves. The goal of the project is to image and catalog the medium term variability of these sources, search for new supernovae in the data and use these observations to constrain the levels of ongoing star-formation in these active sources, via direct and obscuration-independent means.
Gravitational Lensing with the Dark Energy SurveySupervisor: Prof Sarah Bridle
This project will test and use the galaxy shapes measured on the Dark Energy Survey data. It will help improve the im3shape shear measurement pipeline by comparing results using different settings, and implementing calibration corrections. The student will perform statistical tests to determine the level at which the telescope point spread function is contaminating the shear measurements. The student will then measure the mass of a cluster of galaxies by model fitting.
Heating the solar corona: 3D numerical magnetohydrodynamic simulations and 1D modelling of the turbulent dynamoSupervisor: Prof Philippa Browning
A major unsolved problem in astrophysics is to explain why the solar corona is at a temperature of over a million degrees Kelvin (compared with a surface temperature of about 6000 K). Coronal plasma is believed to be heated by dissipation of stored magnetic energy. Much research concerns modelling the dissipation of magnetic energy through the process of magnetic reconnection. There are two potential projects in this area. One project will involve running numerical simulations using the LARE3D code, which numerically solves the equations of magnetohydrodynamics, and analysing the results. This will build on recent work showing that reconnection can be triggered by the onset of the kink instability in twisted coronal loops, exploring a range of magnetic field configurations and exploring the energy release. The second project will use a simplified analytical model of the effects of turbulent reconnection, building on one-dimensional models widely used for laboratory plasmas in which the turbulence is parameterised as a 'dynamo' electric field. These models will be extended to solar coronal loops, requiring some analytical calculations and simple numerical modelling (solution of ordinary differential equations).
Simulations and forecasts for the Square Kilometre ArraySupervisor: Dr Michael Brown and Dr Anna Bonaldi
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a multi-purpose radio telescope covering the frequency range from 70 MHz to >25 GHz. Construction will start in 2016 and finish in 2023, with first science to start in 2019. An important aspect prior to the operation is the forecast of performances for a given scientific objective and depending on the instrumental specifications. With application to the Epoch of Reionization research, one of the key science projects of the SKA, the student will work on simulations of the instrumental response and the accuracy of removal of point-like sources from the maps, depending on the array configuration and the other parameters describing the instrument and the observation.
High energy particles in solar flaresSupervisor: Prof Philippa Browning
Solar flares are dramatic releases of stored magnetic energy, emitting electromagnetic radiation from radio to hard X-rays or gamma rays. Large numbers of non-thermal ions and electrons are produced, but the origin of these high-energy particles is not understood. A promising theory is that particles are accelerated by the strong electric fields associated with reconnection of the magnetic fieldlines. This can be studied using a "test particle" approach, in which charged particle motion is calculated in electromagnetic fields representative of reconnection. A project is available to use test particle models to study the generation of high energy particles in solar flares - this will involve adapting existing computer codes, as well as some programming and analytical calculations.
Radio Recombination Lines with single dishesSupervisor: Prof Richard J Davis
We have used Parkes ZOA and HIPASS data at 1.4GHz to study Radio Recombination lines in our Galaxy. This is to study the ionised gas normally detected with Halpha emission to form a template for the Free-Free emission in our Galaxy: so important as a foreground to our CMB measurements, particularly for Planck. However this is not possible for low galactic latitudes due to the dust in our Galaxy. We thus turn to these radio frequencies where the dust is transparent.
We have very good data in the south with Parkes , but need to obtain good data in the north with the Lovell. We need to design a back end correlator system for JBO to enable us to observe the RRL's at JBO. The student will interact with others at JBO and JBCA to cost and design such a system.
HI intensity mapping for the detection of Baryon Acoustic OscillationsSupervisor: Dr. Clive Dickinson
Baryon Acoustic Oscillations (BAOs) are imprinted on matter throughout the Universe. They provide a key cosmological standard ruler, that can be used to measure the expansion of the Universe as a function of redshift and therefore can constrain dark energy models e.g. the equation of state. This is one of the key science drivers for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) that will be fully operational during the next decade. However, a new technique called "HI intensity mapping" may allow them to be detected at radio wavelengths by mapping the redshifted 21cm HI line on large angular scales. Furthermore, this could be achievable within the next few years, providing complementary information and an independent test of the cosmological model.
We have proposed a single dish experiment, BINGO (BAOs using Integrated Neutral Gas Observations), that has the possibility of detecting BAOs (Battye et al. 2013). We are currently pursuing funding and site locations for the 40m dish required for BINGO. In the meantime, much preparation is required both on the instrumentation side, and on the analysis side. In particular, we need to make detailed simulations of BINGO data, taking into account the bright foregrounds and also instrumental systematic effects that could be problematic. These issues will be critical to the success of the experiment. We are also affiliated with other HI intensity mapping experiments including interferometric arrays that could be the focus of the project depending on progress with both experiments.
The student will become a member of the BINGO team and cosmology group at Manchester. Depending on your interest, and background, you will work with the BINGO team to develop simulation tools, component separation and analysis techniques, and may be involved in the design and testing of instrumentation for BINGO (e.g. testing of receivers, programming of digital backends etc.). An important aspect will be dealing with foreground contamination from our Galaxy and extragalactic radio sources.
Radio mapping of the sky using single dish dataSupervisor: Dr. Clive Dickinson
Sensitive mapping of extended diffuse emission, over a large region of sky, is notoriously difficult with single radio dishes. Firstly, total-power receivers are not stable over long time scales, resulting in large scale variations of power. Secondly, the atmosphere itself fluctuates in terms of the radiated power producing similarly large variations in power. This limits the maps that can be produced, which are traditionally limited in size and often filtered, leaving only compact sources. This is important for projects such as the One-Centimetre Receiver Array (OCRA), which is currently operated on the Torun 32-m telescope in Poland.
This project will investigate mapping techniques to allow single dishes to recover large-scale emission in the presence of large-scale correlated noise. One example is a Fourier-transform based technique by Emerson, Klein & Haslam (1979), but has only been exploited a few times in recent years. Simulations will be made to quantify how well this technique can be used for modern instruments, for a variety of targets and frequencies. Other algorithms (e.g. Maximum Entropy Method, or direct inversion) may be investigated. We will obtain test data from the OCRA instrument from Torun in Poland to test the algorithm and assess its performance.
31 GHz mapping of Galactic objects using the Cosmic Background ImagerSupervisor: Dr. Clive Dickinson
Our Galaxy, the milkyway, contains a variety of phenomenon that emit radio waves e.g. synchrotron radiation from supernova remnants and free-free emission from warm ionised gas around hot stars. At high radio frequencies (>~10 GHz), a new component has been discovered, that is associated with dust, and dominates over a narrow range of frequencies from about 10 to 60 GHz. This "anomalous microwave emission" is now thought to be due to electric dipole radiation from small spinning dust grains, but there is still not much detailed information about this new component. At these frequencies, it is particularly important to understand the various emission mechanisms since they must be removed from ultra-sensitive observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is typically much weaker.
This project will use data taken with the Cosmic Background Imager (CBI). The CBI was a 13 element close-packed interferometer, located in the Atacama desert in Chile. Although its primary aim was to map the CMB (it the first instrument to detect the so-called "damping tail" of the CMB on scales of ~10 arcmin) it also observed a number of Galactic sources at frequencies of 26-36 GHz, some of which have led to publications in astronomy journals. A number of datasets have still yet to be analysed, including high resolution observations of the Rho Ophiuchi molecular cloud, a sample of supernova remnants, Galactic scans among others. You will reduce and calibrate the CBI data for one or more of these targets, learning how radio interferometry works and how to make a deconvolved (CLEANed) map of the source. You will then interpret the images produced, comparing them with multi-frequency data available on the web - including low frequency radio data and infrared data from the IRAS satellite.
E-Merlin studies of gravitational lensingSupervisor: Dr. Neal Jackson
Gravitational lenses are systems in which a background object is multiply imaged by the action of the gravitational field of a foreground galaxy. They are important because they can give us indications of mass distributions in distant objects, independent of the light that they emit. Studies of radio gravitational lenses are interesting because they can, as well as mapping the structure associated with the normal lensed images of the background source, also see the central image which forms very close to the line of sight to the lensing galaxy. This image carries information about the central part of the lensing galaxy potential, in the region close to the central black hole and stellar cusp. The image is likely to be very faint, and has evaded detection in all but one case so far. However, with the new generation of instruments, which are about ten times more sensitive than hitherto, we should be able to detect such central images if they exist. The major such instruments are the EVLA and e-MERLIN, based at Jodrell Bank. A large legacy programme for e-MERLIN has been awarded in order to study radio-loud gravitational lens systems.
The project will begin with analysis of some already existing EVLA data on gravitational lens systems, on which preliminary analysis has already been done. The student will then become involved with e-MERLIN during the commissioning phase, and help with the analysis and interpretation of early data from the e-MERLIN lensing legacy programme. Full details of this programme are given on this webpage.
A first look at the Galactic magnetic field with the C-Band All-Sky Survey (C-BASS)Supervisor: Dr Paddy Leahy
The C-Band All Sky Survey is a major project to map the Galactic and extragalactic synchrotron emission, and particularly its polarization, across the whole sky. It will be used both to help understand the Galaxy's magnetic field, and to correct Cosmic Microwave Background polarization observations for the foreground synchrotron emission. We are using two telescopes, one in Owens Valley, California, and one in the Karoo desert, South Africa. We have now produced science quality maps of intensity and polarization with the Northern instrument, which allows us for the first time to study the synchrotron polarization across the Northern sky.This polarization depends on the Galactic magnetic field. The fractional polarization is fixed by the field tangling in the interstellar medium, while the field direction is given by the polarization angles. Residual Faraday Rotation at 5 GHz can be fixed by comparison with surveys at higher and lower frequencies such as WMAP and the DRAO Penticton survey, which gives the line-of-sight component of the magnetic field. The student will analyse all these maps to constrain models of the interstellar magnetic field.
All-sky map-making with Single Dish Radio TelescopesSupervisor: Dr Paddy Leahy
There are many projects in progress to map the radio sky at various different frequencies (from 300 MHz to 857 GHz) by scanning the sky with single dish telescopes. Examples include the WMAP and Planck cosmic microwave background satellites, C-BASS, and the GMIMS polarization survey which uses Penticton, Canada, and Parkes in Australia.
In all these surveys we wish to make a map of the sky, which comes down to finding the brightness of the radio emission (in several Stokes parameters) at each pixel in some convenient tiling of the celestial sphere. The problem is that the data is not collected by pointing at each pixel centre, but by scanning the telescope in some pattern with no particular relation to the sky pixelization. Since the telescope sees the sky convolved with its point-spread function (the "beam", as radio astronomers say), this gives full information about the sky provided that gaps between neighbouring measurements are smaller than half the beam width. The simplest way to treat such data is to bin each measurement into the nearest pixel, and this is what all current surveys do. But in many ways this is very sub-optimal and it would be better to interpolate the data onto the sky pixel grid. There are two problems to be solved: (i) computationally efficient interpolation onto the pixelised sphere (all standard interpolation routines work on a flat cartesian grid) and (ii) determination of the optimum interpolation function. The latter depends on the beam shape and also on the scientific purpose intended for the sky map. One example of the latter is to compensate for highly elliptial beams, such as some of those on WMAP and Planck, which otherwise make the sky maps difficult to interpret, especially in polarization.
This MSc project will produce and test an interpolation map-maker using the high-level IDL language, which will function as a prototype for an advanced map-maker for the Planck and C-BASS projects.
The chemistry of giant starsSupervisor: Dr. Iain McDonald, Prof. Albert Zijlstra
Twinkle twinkle, little stars. We don't wonder what you are, because we have measured your spectra. We can determine the abundance of various different elements in stars by measuring the strengths of the absorption lines in their spectra. This project involves measuring lines in the spectra of around 100 stars in a globular cluster, taken with the Very Large Telescope. These are very old stars which formed shortly after the Big Bang. Measuring their composition tells us about how these clusters formed, and about the very first stars that came before them. Previous experience with Linux would be helpful. The student should be prepared to make themselves available for a week during the first semester (subject to taught courses) for a visit by our collaborator, Christian Johnson (UCLA), with whom we will work closely on this project.
The Orbital Parameters of Radio Emitting X-ray TransientsSupervisors: Dr Tim O'Brien & Prof Ralph Spencer (Emeritus)
X-ray binaries are close binary star systems in which one star transfers matter to the other. The donor star is typically a main-sequence star (although some are more evolved) whilst the accretor is a more compact object, usually a neutron star or black hole. The release of gravitational potential energy in the accretion process causes the systems to be bright in the X-rays. Some of these systems show outbursts in which the X-ray brightness changes rapidly - these are known as X-ray binary transients. These systems also show radio emission, in many cases in the form of jets. The mechanism which drives these outbursts and variability is still not well understood. This project aims to explore the relationship between the radio/X-ray variability and the orbital parameters. For example, we might expect that binaries with circular orbits would have steadier accretion than those with eccentric orbits and hence might exhibit less variability. The project would involve collecting data on orbital periods etc, where known, and comparing these with known radio and X-ray properties. Observational data will be gathered largely from the published literature although archives, such as from the VLA, could also be mined where data are incomplete. Ways of appropriately characterising 'variability' would need to be investigated - so there are also signal processing aspects of the project.
Observation and modelling of nova explosionsSupervisor: Dr T.J. O'Brien
Novae are interacting binary stars in which a white dwarf accretes matter from a companion star. A thermonuclear explosion on the surface of the white dwarf ejects the matter, causing a significant brightening across the spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays. Our group and international collaborators are involved with monitoring nova outbursts using a range of telescopes and interpreting the observations in terms of hydrodynamic models of the explosion. A number of projects are possible in this area, including reduction and analysis of radio observations (including from e-MERLIN), hydrodynamic simulations of shocks and modelling of X-ray emission. Outstanding questions relate to the geometry of the ejecta and the ultimate fate of the white dwarf, in particular whether some of these systems eventually end as supernova explosions.
A superconducting parametric amplifier for the new generation of radio telescopesSupervisors: Prof Lucio Piccirillo, Dr Mark McCulloch, Dr Simon Melhuish
Parametric amplifiers are well known to have excellent low noise performances suitable for astronomical receivers. Very recently it has been proposed that the kinetic inductance of superconductors can be used as a non linear parameter to realise ultra low noise parametric amplifiers. These amplifiers have the potential to possess a large gain/bandwidth product and possibly even beat the quantum noise limit!
These amplifiers have also important applications in other fields like, for example, quantum computing.
The student will be involved in the theory of superconducting parametric amplifiers as well as in the design, realisation and testing of test amplifiers. During this work the student will learn radio-frequency design, cryogenic design and testing, low temperatures techniques (sub-K).
Direct detection of very high frequency gravitational wavesSupervisor: Prof. Lucio Piccirillo
Graviton to photon conversion is possible in the presence of a strong static magnetic field (inverse Gertsenshtein effect). The photon generated will be coherent with the original graviton. We are interested in exploring the theoretical and technical issues related to the direct detection of gravitons in the GHz to optical frequencies. The potential sources of such high frequency gravitons are at a moment very speculative: Kalutza-Klein 5D gravity and/or the inflationary period in the big bang. A prototype detector has been in operation for several months collecting useful data.
The student will be involved in the data analysis and simulations as well as in the continuation of the design studies for a more sensitive detector.
A miniature dilution refrigerator for astrophysical applicationsSupervisor: Prof. Lucio Piccirillo
Bolometers are the preferred detectors of astrophysical radiation in the mm/sub-mm and far infrared. When operating in low background, bolometers need to be cooled to extremely low temperatures 300 mK to 30 mK. Below 100 mK the preferred cooling technology is based on the dilution cooling of mixture of He-3/He-4. Our group is world leading in the development of miniature dilution systems that can be operated in small cryostats suitable for operations at the focal plane of telescopes.
The student will be heavily involved in the design, realisation and testing of a fully tiltable miniature dilution refrigerator.
Development of a novel passive correlator for the next generation of radio astronomy interferometers.Supervisor: Prof. Lucio Piccirillo
Diffraction of electromagnetic waves limits the angular resolution of radio telescopes. The larger the diameter of the telescope the better the angular resolution. Unfortunately, building larger telescope to achieve better and better resolution is very expensive: it scales roughly with the diameter to the power of 2.8. Radio interferometry allows us to achieve high resolution by combining the amplitude/phase of the electromagnetic waves coming from many small telescope. The combination is achieved by electronic correlators. Correlators are very complex electronic devices: the current limit to the number of antennas that can be correlated is of the order of few tens (the number of signals, or baselines, goes as the square of the number of antennas).
A novel passive correlator will be studied theoretically and especially experimentally. The idea to be tested consists in optically combining the amplitudes of the waves coming from each telescope in an optical "beam combiner". This system can potentially correlate hundreds of telescopes. The student will work with a team that will design, build and test a 3 x 3 quasi optical correlator working at 11 GHz. The prototype will be fielded at the Jodrell Bank Observatory from where observations of some strong radio sources will be performed.
Study fast radio transients with the Lovell TelescopeSupervisor: Dr. Ben Stappers
Radio Transients provide an opportunity to study some of the most extreme environments in the Universe. It is already well known that neutron stars can give off bursts of emission on timescales as short as nanoseconds, but bright radio bursts are also expected from Gamma-ray bursts, merging neutron stars or blackholes, or perhaps even evaporating black holes. The study of transients in the radio has recently undergone a rapid evolution with the building of new telescopes and significant improvements in computing capabilities. We have recently purchased hardware to undertake a survey for variable and transient radio emission with the Lovell Telescope. We will use this to piggy-back on nearly all observations with the Lovell, to get sufficient observing time to detect rare and interesting events. This project is to help develop the software required to perform these observations and to analyse the data. Once observations are possible the student will analyse the data to look for new, and known sources of transient radio emission with a view to detecting rare, and thus scientifically important events. This project requires someone with a good understanding of computing and software.
The Pulse Shape-Spin Down relationship for pulsars and the limits of pulsar timing precision Stappers and WeltevredeSupervisor: Dr. Ben Stappers
It has recently become clear that the apparently random variations in the pulse arrival times of pulsars are, at least in some cases, actually very deterministic. Moreover, they are strongly correlated to changes in the pulsed radio emission from the pulsar. This link, indicates that properties within the magnetosphere are changing globally and show that we need to consider the full electrodynamics of pulsar emission and spin in order to be able to understand this process. Moreover, this relationship shows that by measuring one property, say the pulsar shape changes, we can predict what the spin properties should be. This potentially provides a way to correct for the timing noise and thus make pulsars even better clocks than they already are. This is an extremely interesting area of research, as using pulsars as precise clocks for fundamental studies of gravity is an important aspect of the next generation radio telescopes like the SKA.
The LOW Frequency ARray, LOFAR, is the first of the next generation of radio telescopes to be built. It is located predominantly in the Netherlands but extends over much of Europe. unlike traditional radio telescopes that are based around large parabolic surfaces it uses small dipole-like antennae and combines them using sophisticated software and large computing power. Moreover it works below about 300 MHz, a frequency region previously very poorly studied. We have performed a survey of parts of the Northern sky to search for new radio pulsars. Pulsars are highly magnetised and rapidly rotating neutron stars and are some of the most extreme objects known. They are used for studies as varied as the behaviour of plasma in regions of high magnetic field to searching for gravitational waves. This project is to work on developing new and effective ways to find pulsars and to apply these techniques to our existing and new data sets to try and find new pulsars.
A polarized view on the pulses of radio pulsarsSupervisor: Dr. Patrick Weltevrede
Radio pulsars are highly magnetised neutron stars which spin with periods of between a few millisecond and seconds. Each rotation the radio emission, which is beamed along the magnetic poles, sweeps across the Earth and can be detected by very sensitive radio telescopes as a regular sequence of pulses. The rotation of the neutron stars is extremely stable which makes them very accurate clocks allowing tests of the general theory of relativity. However, each of the individual pulses of the observed sequence vary greatly in shape, intensity and polarisation properties. These variations caused by largely unknown physical processes in the magnetosphere of these stars. In some cases these variations happen in a coordinated fashion, which are known as drifting subpulses. We have recently shown that this property seems to be endemic to the overall emission process of pulsars. In this project we want to compare the radio polarisation properties of a large sample of pulsars with their drifting subpulse properties to better determine the physics of the emission process. This process is still a mystery since the discovery of pulsars more than 40 year ago.