Potential PhD projects: Extragalactic Astrophysics and Cosmology

Project: Galaxy formation with the next generation of telescopes

Supervisor: Dr Sean McGee

During this PhD, the next generation of telescopes and surveys used to study galaxy formation will become available. This includes new observatories like Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the Euclid space telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope as well as new instruments like WEAVE on the William Herschel Telescope and MOONS on the Very Large Telescopes. This PhD will prepare and make use of these new tools to examine galaxy formation. 

There are several possible projects including, but not limited to: the tidal disruption of stars by the black holes in galaxies and their subsequent effect on the galaxy hosts; the effect of environment on the formation of galaxies through cosmic time; and constraining the mass function of dark matter halos with strong gravitational lensing.

For more information, please email Dr. Sean McGee (smcgee[at]star.sr.bham.ac.uk)

Project: Explosive astrophysics from time-domain surveys

Supervisor: Dr Matt Nicholl

Every second, somewhere in the Universe a star explodes and briefly outshines an entire galaxy. With increasingly powerful sky surveys, we are finding more and more supernovae and other bright transient phenomena in real time, and discovering an extremely diverse zoo of observational properties. The goals of time-domain astronomy are to characterise how and why stars end their lives in such different ways in order to understand stellar evolution, the physics of neutron stars and black holes, and the creation of the chemical elements.

Our group are interested in rare and energetic sources:

  1.   Rare 'superluminous' supernovae (SLSN) are the brightest explosions in the Universe, but we need to pin down the mechanism and type(s) of stars that produce these, neither of which are currently understood.
  2.  Tidal disruption events (TDEs) occur when stars are torn apart by the supermassive black holes in the centres of galaxies, leading to bright flares; constraining their observational signatures offers a new way to probe the physics of massive BHs.
  3. Machine learning and Big Data are increasingly vital for survey astronomy, as the numbers of detected transients far outweighs our abilities to study them all. New machine learning tools will be used to discover the largest ever samples of SLSNe, TDEs, and optical counterparts to gravitational wave events.

An interested student will address these problems using observations from cutting-edge facilities including ZTF, LSST, ePESSTO+ and the Very Large Telescope, along with the latest techniques in machine learning and modelling transient data. See below for a flavour of my work and the type of studies possible.

Superluminous supernovae: [arxiv.org]

Tidal disruption events: [arxiv.org]

GW follow-up: [arxiv.org]

Machine learning: [arxiv.org]

For more information, please email Dr. Matt Nicholl (mnicholl[at]star.sr.bham.ac.uk

Project:Gravitationally lensed time domain astronomy

Supervisor: Dr Graham Smith

In the 2020s gravitationally lensed time domain astronomy will grow exponentially as the Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, LSST) and numerous smaller survey telescopes begin to survey the sky. These detections of multiply-imaged and highly magnified transients (including supernovae, kilonovae, and potentially tidal disruption events) will enable us to study a wide range of exciting physics, including the nature of dark matter, the expansion rate of the universe, testing GR, supernova progenitors, the equation of state of neautron stars, and the evolution of the gravitational wave source populations on cosmological timescales. In Birmingham we are interested in using upcoming facilities including Rubin/LSST, GOTO and BlackGEM to detect kilonova counterparts to strongly lensed binary neutron star mergers. PhD projects are available in this and related areas, including observational searches for the optical counterparts, characterising the population of gravitational lenses, predicting the detection rates of lensed transients, gravitational lens modelling, and interpretation of the lensed detections.

For more information, please email Dr Graham Smith (gps[at]star.sr.bham.ac.uk)