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Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics

Jodrell bank telescope against a backdrop of sunset

PhD projects

Below is a list of PhD projects being offered in 2022. The list will be continuously updated over time.

Please click on a project title to expand it and find out more about it. The associated contact name refers to the primary supervisor. You are encouraged to contact a member of staff to find out more about their project. Alternatively, you are welcome to discuss other project ideas you may have.

All of the projects listed below are eligible for funding through the general pool of funding schemes listed on our funding page. Any projects marked as "Allocated funding" carry specific guaranteed funding attached to the project. Applicants for "allocated funding" projects will be assessed and shortlisted separately from the general pool. If you have guaranteed funding through a scheme not listed on our funding page or are self-funding please contact our PhD admissions lead, Dr Rowan Smith (rowan.smith at manchester.ac.uk), directly.

One of our most important funding streams is through the STFC research council who offer fully funded PhD positions for home students and a limited number of overseas students. For full consideration for STFC funding your application must be submitted by Friday the 21st of January 2022. Other schemes described in our funding pages typically have early January deadlines. If you think one of these would be a good fit for you, please express your interest to your prospective supervisor when discussing the project to avoid missing out.

For details on the application process and of application deadlines please refer to the Postgraduate study page. All correspondence once your application has been submitted will be by e-mail.

As projects are continually added, applicants are encouraged to apply even if a project area they are interested in is not listed. In this case you may indicate in the application form your preferred area of research (e.g. "cosmology")  for the Research Title.

Characterizing the dynamic magnetospheres of neutron stars

Supervisor: Patrick Weltevrede  

Contact: patrick.weltevrede  

Project description:
Radio pulsars are highly magnetised neutron stars which rotate very rapidly: up to 100s of times per second. During each rotation, the radio emission 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 can be extremely stable which makes them very accurate clocks allowing tests of the general theory of relativity. However, for most pulsars the individual pulses of the observed sequence vary greatly in shape, intensity and polarization. These variations are 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, indicative of regular dynamical changes in the magnetosphere. 

In this project you will explore observational data from the "1000 Pulsar Array" project on the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa (a pre-cursor of the SKA: the Square Kilometre Array which will be the largest telescope in the world). This rich data-set has exquisite quality observations for many pulsars yet to be analysed in any detail. In this project you will characterize this variability seen in the pulse shapes and their polarization, and explore the implications for magnetospheric theories. Where possible, we will supplement this data with observations from the Parkes radio telescope in Australia (a great instrument which has discovered more pulsars than any other radio telescope in the world) and the FAST radio telescope in China (largest single-dish telescope in the world). 

C-Band All-Sky Survey (C-BASS)

Supervisor: Clive Dickinson, Paddy Leahy

Contact: Clive Dickinson

Project description: 

The C-Band All-Sky Survey (C-BASS) is a dedicated 5 GHz all-sky radio survey, that is mapping the entire sky in intensity and polarization, with an angular resolution of 45 arcmin (https://cbass.web.ox.ac.uk/home). The data will be crucial in understanding and removing of diffuse polarized synchrotron radiation from sensitive CMB surveys that are aiming to detect gravitational waves from the early Universe. The maps are also of great interest for studying the Galaxy, including emission mechanisms, Galactic structure, the Galactic magnetic field.

C-BASS has completed the northern survey observations taken at Owens Valley Radio Observatory in California. The maps are currently being finalised with a number of initial scientific exploitation papers being prepared. The southern survey, located near to the SKA site in the Karoo desert, South Africa, is currently being commissioned. The data from the southern telescope is expected to available in 2022/2023. Eventually, we will produce full-sky maps that will be released to the astronomical community (2024/2025). In the mean time, we can use these new data to study Galactic emission. For example, C-BASS data will allow a much better separation of CMB/foregrounds in the WMAP/Planck satellite data. A number of science papers are expected to come from C-BASS (see e.g. https://cbass.web.ox.ac.uk/journal-papers

The student project will be to take a lead in the data analysis and scientific exploitation using C-BASS data. A major task will be in reducing and calibrating the southern data as it comes in (experience with Python and/or CC++ would be an advantage). Understanding the data will be crucial for ensuring that scientific results are not affected by residual systematic errors in the data, such as from ground emission and radio frequency interference (RFI). There will be ample opportunity to do scientific analyses of C-BASS data in conjunction with multi-frequency data, depending on the interests of the student, which will lead to peer-reviewed journal papers.

C-BASS is a collaboration between Manchester and Oxford Universities in the UK, Caltech/JPL in the U.S., Rhodes University/UKZN in South Africa, and KACST in Saudi Arabia.

Death of the Sun

Supervisor: Albert Zijlstra

Contact: Albert Zijlstra

Project description:

Stars at the end of their loves eject much of their mass back into space. The ejecta are visible as bright nebulae surrounding an extremely hot remnant star. Within a period of 100,000 years, the star turns into a white dwarf and the nebula expands and merges with the interstellar medium. Elements such as carbon and nitrogen, but also half of all elements heavier than iron come from the ejecta from stars like the Sun.

In Manchester, we study the ejection process itself: the catastrophic superwind. We also study the shaping and evolution of the nebulae (planetary nebulae), and we use these object to study the evolution of the Milky Way.

Examples of PhD projects that are available are:

1. The ALMA project ATOMIUM studies the ejection process at very high resolution, and maps the shells in a variety of molecular lines. This aims to answer the question how the nebulae become non-spherical. This includes interaction with planets around the stars and with binary companions. This is one of the largest ALMA projects in existence

2. Planetary nebulae are important tracers for how the Galactic bulge formed. It is currently not known whether the bulge formed in a fast starburst, as one of the first components of the Milky Way, or formed later due to a merger with another galaxy. A large spectroscopic study of several hundred planetary nebulae will be used to derive the abundances and ages of the progenitor stars. This will show whether the bulge s uniformly old, and how quickly it became enriched by supernovae.

3. A number of nearby stars which are in the early phases of the superwind have been imaged with the Sphere instrument of the European Southern Observatory. This is an extreme adaptive optics instrument which can resolve the surfaces of the stars themselves. The project is in collaboration with Nice and and may involve a longer stay at the Nice Observatory

4. Machine learning is being developed to automatically classify planetary nebulae from large surveys. This project is in collaboration with Malaysia and combines astronomy with computer science.

Development of Quantum Noise Limited amplifiers for radio astronomy

Supervisor: Lucio Piccirillo

Contact: lucio.piccirillo 

Project description:

Current technologies for Low Noise Amplifiers employ High Electron Mobility Transistors (HEMT) as basic element to achieve low noise, wide bandwidth and high frequency of operations. In order to fully exploit these characteristics, the amplifiers are usually cooled to cryogenic temperature in the range 4K to 20K to reduce all sources of noise that have a temperature dependent behaviours. The physics of these transistors has evidenced that there are limitations to their ultimate performances and so the scientific community is working towards alternative technologies.

A new class of amplifiers - called superconducting parametric amplifiers (SC Paramps) - make use of the non-linear inductance of Cooper pairs in a superconductor to achieve amplification at high frequencies with large bandwidth and noise that can potentially achieve (or in special cases even beat) the quantum noise limit ~hv/k.

The student will be introduced to all aspects of the physics of Low Noise Amplifiers with extensive laboratory measurements and CAD simulations involving all aspects of the new devices. Comparative studies with HEMT amplifiers will also be conducted. The student will also learn how to make prototypes of SC Paramps by using the Computer Science clean room facilities as well as Daresbury Laboratories clean room facilities. Once successfully manufactured, the student will test his/her devices in our Radio Astronomy RF and Cryogenic Laboratories in the Turing Building.

The student will join a group already heavily involved in all aspects of this research, from the design using specialized CAD software, to the manufacturing, testing and integration into low temperature systems down to mK temperatures. The student will also have the opportunity to be part of large scientific collaborations involving international partners aimed at the construction and operation of astrophysics experiments (QUBIC, LSPE, Polar Bear, COSMO, Simons Array, Simons Observatory).

Fragmentation, multiplicity and massive star formation in filament hubs

Supervisor: Rowan Smith

Contact: Rowan Smith

Project description: 

Massive stars have a profound influence upon their surroundings and the evolution of the galactic Interstellar Medium due to their radiation, momentum feedback and final death as supernovae. Binary interaction dominates the evolution of massive stars, but at present multiplicity is rarely taken into account when studying massive star formation. However, it is a crucial topic, as close companions alter massive stars evolutionary path via mass exchange, and their subsequent supernovae progenitors. Observations show that massive cores often contain multiple proto-stars and that cores are formed within networks of filaments gas in molecular clouds. Thus massive proto-stellar cores may be fed by clumpy streams of gas with variable angular momentum, making fragmentation increasingly likely.

This project aims to rectify this by simulating massive and low mass cores formed within molecular cloud filament networks, to investigate their multiplicity and disc properties. We will use the MHD code Arepo with radiative transfer to simulate filamentary gas networks to investigate the fragmentation of the gas into stars. Does including the environment in which massive stars form increase their likelihood to be part of multiple star systems?

Is there a new radio background? The L-Band All-Sky Survey (L-BASS)

Supervisor: Patrick Leahy, Co-supervisors: Ian Browne and Peter Wilkinson.

Contact: Patrick Leahy, ian.browne

Project description:

The aim of the L-BASS project is to map the intensity of the radio sky at ~1.4 GHz with unprecedented absolute accuracy (0.1K) – ten times better than achieved by Penzias and Wilson in their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. There are several reasons to do this, the most exciting being that it should settle a current astrophysical puzzle about the reality of excess all-sky low frequency emission of unknown origin (the “ARCADE-2 controversy”). Such an excess might help account for another recent controversial result which is the claimed detection of strong absorption arising in atomic hydrogen situated at a redshift of 17 (the “EDGES result”). In addition our sky map will have impact on Galactic astrophysics and our knowledge of the Cosmic Microwave Background. During the PhD project the student will produce and interpret the first sky maps with the L-BASS telescope system which is situated at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The system, which is based on two large horn antennas, is now erected and the receiver is about to be installed. Commissioning observations will begin Q4 2021. This PhD project involves a mixture of hands-on work to optimize the system, making precisely calibrated observations and writing software for data analysis followed by the astrophysical interpretation of the results. To achieve the required accuracy (0.1K) requires particularly careful calibration using a cryogenically cooled reference load of known physical temperature; the assembly and testing of this cryogenic calibration load will take place during the next two years and form a significant part of the project.

Looking for evidence of energy-intensive extra-terrestrial civilisations via anomalies in astronomical data

Supervisor: Mike Garrett (UoM) and Andrew Siemion (UCB & UoM).

Contact: Mike Garrett

Project description:

For untold millennia, humankind has looked up at the sky and marvelled at the vastness and beauty of the cosmos. Countless generations have tried to understand their place in the centre of these immensities while contemplating the meaning of life and their own individual mortality. The scientific method has revealed some of the inner workings of the universe, and yet there are some fundamental questions that remain unanswered. One of these is: Are we alone? This PhD project aims to look for the kind of artificial signatures an advanced technical civilisation might imprint on astronomical data collected by telescopes on Earth and in space. A general goal is to search for generic anomalies in astronomical data by utilising large-scale public telescope surveys, looking for unusual features in multi-waveband data.

In particular, we will search for extreme outliers in the Mid-IR/radio correlation -  a new method that permits us to break the degeneracies that can occur due to the presence of dust in extragalactic systems. Using wide-area surveys in the radio and mid-Infrared, we can survey millions of extragalactic systems, looking for the tell-tale signs of waste-heat from energy-intensive advanced civilisations. We will also further develop SETI searches using the technique of radio interferometry – this offers several advantages compared to traditional single-dish or beam-formed approaches, and we will do this in collaboration with the Breakthrough Listen Initiative (BLI), specifically contributing to the BLI MeerKAT 1-million star survey, preparing the way towards SETI with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Pulsar timing with the Lovell Telescope

Supervisor: Michael Keith, Ben Stappers

Contact: michael.keith

Project description

Pulsars are highly magnetised neutron stars, rotating with periods from a millisecond to tens of seconds. They are a laboratory for a wide range of exotic physics.

The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory, run by the University of Manchester, has been observing pulsars for the last 50 years and we regularly observe around 800 pulsars. We can use these observations to track the rotation of these pulsars to a tiny fraction of the rotation period. This allows us to study the pulsars themselves, as well as the ionised interstellar medium between the pulsar and the Earth, and even to use pulsars as arms of a galaxy-scale gravitational wave detector.

Although pulsars are typically considered excellent astronomical “clocks” many pulsars exhibit deviations from the expected long-term spin-down. These deviations add noise to precision timing experiments such as the gravitational wave detectors, but are also intriguing windows into the exotic physics of pulsars. In the last few years we have noticed that many of these deviations have a quasi-periodic nature and the rotational fluctuations may be correlated with changes in the pulsar emission.

In this project we will use the tools of data science to carry out an in-depth study of this spin noise and the emission properties of the pulsars. The aims will be to better understand the behaviour of pulsars and to potentially reduce the impact of this noise in other pulsar timing projects.

Simulating star bursting galaxies across cosmological time

Supervisor: Rowan Smith

Contact: Rowan Smith

Project description:

One of the fundamental questions in Astrophysics is the link between galaxies and the formation of stars within them. Such stars injects energy, momentum and metals into the surrounding gas and play a crucial role in the evolution of small irregular systems in the early universe, into the galaxies we see today. On the other hand, the conditions within the galaxy will determine where star forming clouds of gas can form, how they fragment, and ultimately how solar systems like our own are made. Until recently the link between galaxy and star-forming scales could not be investigated simultaneously. However, our team has recently pioneered a technique where individual star forming regions can be simulated within a full galaxy simulation. In this project we will use our custom modified version of the AREPO MHD code to investigate how stars form in some of the most dramatic objects in our Universe, Starburst Galaxies.

To do this we will simulate firing dwarf galaxies and tidal streams through the discs of larger galaxies, and self-consistently resolve the formation of star forming clouds where the two interact. In these starburst regions we will investigate how the star formation rate is changed, the effect on the surrounding galaxy, and how the gas fragments. Is star formation in these extreme systems like that of the Milky Way, or is there a new paradigm? What observable signatures can we predict will be seen with cutting edge facilities such as the ALMA telescope? This project is primarily numerically based, but while previous experience of simulations and HPC would be beneficial, it is not a necessity as training will be provided in all the techniques as part of the project.

Simulating the galaxy clusters in our local Universe

Supervisor: Scott Kay 

Contact: scott.kay 

Project description: 

Studies of galaxy clusters allow many aspects of our current understanding of the Universe to be challenged, from the formation and evolution of galaxies to the nature of the dark matter. Multi-wavelength observations of clusters now provide constraints on all major components: the dark matter halo, cluster galaxies and intracluster gas and stars. Complementary to these observations are hydrodynamical simulations, allowing physical models of clusters to be tested on a range of scales. In recent years, cluster simulations have advanced to the point where the properties of individual galaxies can now be resolved; see our recent Cluster-EAGLE project as an example.

In this project, the student would become involved in collaborative efforts to develop the next generation of cluster simulations. One particular goal we have at the moment is to produce new, high-resolution simulations of clusters in the local Universe (such as Virgo and Fornax) using constrained initial conditions. Such objects, being nearby, are well studied observationally and  it is of interest to understand how these objects formed. 

This project would suit a student with a keen interest in numerical modelling/simulation and cosmology.

The student would join the Virgo consortium collaboration and make use of allocated Virgo project time on the DiRAC HPC facility and the SWIFT simulation code.

Study of the First Galaxies and Stars with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Supervisor: Christopher Conselice

Contact: Christopher Conselice

Project description:

The James Webb space telescope, launching in late-2021, will produce a revolution in our understanding of the first galaxies and stars formed within 500 million years after the Big Bang. This update to the Hubble Space Telescope will allow us to probe galaxies in a way that we are unable to do today -- we will observe for the first time the birth of galaxies in the universe. Due to our observing strategy we will also observe some of the earliest stars when they explode as supernova. I am co-leading a JWST guaranteed time observations (GTO) team who will obtain some of the earliest data from JWST for this project.

The student working on this project will lead the discovery of the first galaxies, and studying their properties including their masses, sizes, structures, and merger histories. We are currently obtaining ancillary data with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. The student working on this project will take on a leadership role in investigating the stellar populations, ages, structures, and star formation rates of the first galaxies and stars using JWST imaging and spectroscopy. These observations will be interpreted in terms of theories of galaxies formation to test and exclude different ideas for how the first generations of galaxies and star formed.

The effects of CMB spectral distortions on the 21cm signals

Supervisor: Jens Chluba and Sandeep Acharya

Contact: jens.chluba, sandeep.acharya

Project description:

The physics of CMB spectral distortions and 21cm signals are both individually fairly well understood now in many aspects. In the modelling of the 21cm signals one usually assumes that the CMB spectrum is given by a perfect blackbody at early times. This has been observationally proven to be an excellent description of the CMB spectrum at frequencies nu ~ 60-600 GHz by COBE/FIRAS. Outside of this range, the CMB spectrum could indeed be heavily distorted without violating existing constraints. In the project we would investigate how CMB spectral distortions at both very low (nu<10GHz) and very high (nu>1THz) frequencies could affect the modelling of the 21cm signals.

The cosmological thermalization code CosmoTherm will be used for detailed modelling of CMB spectral distortion signals and then has to be modified to include 21cm physics. The goal will be to develop new tests of exotic physics, such as decaying particles, primordial black holes and primordial density perturbations created by inflation.

The extreme physics of spider pulsar binaries

Supervisors: Rene Breton

Contact: rene.breton

Project description:

Binary pulsars are formidable laboratories, allowing us to investigate fundamental physics due to their extreme nature (density, magnetic field and gravitational field). This is only possible as they offer proxies to measure their physical parameters via multi-wavelength observations. Of particular importance are the pulsar binaries nicknamed after the deadly spiders ‘black widows’ and 'redbacks', which contain a rapidly rotating millisecond pulsar that gradually destroys a low-mass companion. Current observations demonstrate that these particular systems harbour some of the most rapidly spinning and massive pulsars known to us. 

The PhD student will contribute to several projects led by the supervisor’s "Spiders team" which aim to find and characterise new spiders to understand the underlying physical mechanisms to their remarkable properties. On the observational side, the Spiders team is involved with multiple pulsar searching efforts conducted at optical and radio wavelengths such as surveys conducted by the TRAPUM collaboration with the MeerKAT telescope. In-depth studies of known systems across the electromagnetic spectrum are then performed in order to feed into models that enable us to determine system parameters such as orbital inclination, masses, and more. On the theoretical side, numerically modelling of the binary evolution is another active area of investigation which offers insights about the extreme interactions which led the pulsar to gradually destroy its companion.

The overarching goal of the PhD project will be to shed light on the impact of the pulsar on the companion's evolution. They will apply cutting-edge data science techniques (e.g. statistical inference, processing large datasets and high performance computing) to some of the areas highlighted above to extract information on the binary interaction.

Tracing cosmic evolution via neutral hydrogen intensity mapping

Supervisor: Laura Wolz

Contact: Laura Wolz

Project description:

The upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will provide new ways to test and constrain the cosmological model of our universe via observations in the radio wavelength. Hydrogen (also called HI) - the most abundant element in our universe - has a characteristic radio emission at 21cm which can be used as a tracer for the underlying dark matter distribution and the cosmic expansion rate. The redshifted 21cm line from HI can be used to efficiently map the large scale structure of our Universe using radio telescopes such as the SKA.

This relatively new method called HI intensity mapping has the potential to test our cosmological standard model in many ways, including the expansion history up to high redshifts. An important aspect on these tests is the correct understanding and modelling of the neutral hydrogen distribution with respect to dark matter. In this project, we investigate new analysis techniques for future HI intensity mapping experiments with the SKA combining astrophysical models of the HI distribution with the cosmological tests. This project will involve working with cosmological simulations as well as developing new numerical methods for future data analysis.

Variational inference in deep learning for radio astronomy

Supervisor: Anna Scaife

Contact: anna.scaife

Project description: 

A new generation of radio astronomy facilities around the world are generating increasingly larger and larger data rates and a natural solution to deal with these data volumes on a reasonable timescale has been to automate the data processing as far as possible. In radio astronomy specifically, studies looking at morphological classification using convolutional neural networks (CNNs) and deep learning have become increasingly common, in particular with respect to the classification of radio galaxies. However, to date there has been little work done on understanding the degree of confidence with which CNN models predict the class of individual radio galaxies, but for radio astronomy, where modern astrophysical analysis is driven by population analyses, quantifying the confidence with which each object is assigned to a particular classification is crucial for understanding the propagation of uncertainties within that analysis. In this project the student will work on the development of Bayesian neural networks for radio galaxy classification. Unlike standard neural networks, Bayesian neural networks learn a probability distribution for each weight instead of a single value or point estimate.

These probability distributions represent the uncertainty in the weights and are propagated through the network to provide an uncertainty on the final predictions. In this project the student will primarily use the variational inference technique to obtain posterior predictive distributions on deep learning models for the classification of radio galaxies. They will examine a number of open questions in this field including how to address the observed cold posterior effect, investigating whether this is due to model misspecification or data curation effects, as well as the related subject of prior selection/misspecification. The student will look at how selection effects from model biases can propagate into astrophysical parameter estimation and the potential of VI-based models for quantifying such effects. This project is best suited to a student who has practical experience of building deep-learning models for image classification and has a demonstrated record of working with variational inference and Bayesian statistics.