The University of Southampton

Stellar Southampton research to push the boundaries of astronomy and space physics

Published: 24 January 2021
Artist’s impression of a stream of matter spilling from a star toward a black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

Researchers at the University of Southampton will break new ground in astronomy and space environment physics in over £3 million of diverse research funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Eight projects will be advanced in the School of Physics and Astronomy over the next three years, covering a wide range of theoretical and observational work in stellar-mass and supermassive black holes, supernovae, and planetary magnetospheres.

The novel research, based in the Southampton Astronomy Group and Space Environment Physics Group, will be driven forward by leading scientists with a team of postdoctoral research associates, and showcased beyond the University in a suite of public engagement activities.

Professor Mark Sullivan, Head of Physics and Astronomy, says: "The quality and innovative nature of these ambitious projects further reinforces our long-standing reputation for world-leading research in these fields. This is an exceptional outcome in a very challenging funding climate, and I look forward to seeing the impact of this ground-breaking work in the coming years."

Seven of the Southampton projects will focus on new advances in astronomy, with a specific focus on compact objects and their origins.

Professor Poshak Gandhi will investigate the formation channels of black holes in one strand by consolidating state-of-the-art astrometric measurements with multiwavelength characterisation. Professor Sullivan will be undertaking a study of 3,000 supernovae from the optical Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) with the new spectroscopic facility 4MOST, exploiting Southampton-led involvement in a UK-based consortium.

Dr Matthew Middleton is further developing the application of a completely new technique to isolate black hole ultraluminous X-ray sources. Dr Diego Altamirano will address key questions in accretion physics by exploiting a Southampton-led fast optical camera, OPTICam, together with unique access to the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) and AstroSat space observatories.

Professor Christian Knigge will develop and test models for the disk winds in active galactic nuclei, the compact region at the centre of galaxies hosting supermassive black holes. Professor Ian McHardy will explore X-ray, radio and UV-optical connections to build understanding of the inner geometry and emission processes of these accreting supermassive black holes. In a further project, Professor Sebastian Hoenig and Professor Francesco Shankar will collaborate on three dimensional radiation-hydrodynamic simulations that will address the question of how supermassive black holes merge as the final process of galaxy collisions.

Within the Space Environment Physics Group, Dr Robert Fear and Dr Imogen Gingell will address questions about how the Earth's magnetosphere responds to the solar wind on a large scale. The nature of this interaction depends on the orientation of the interplanetary magnetic field, which is associated with the solar wind.

The project will use satellite observations to test mechanisms that have been advocated for previously observed complex structure in the magnetosphere. This will enable the team to hunt for the signature of that structure's predicted interaction with the solar wind, and to investigate equivalent structure present in global simulations of the magnetosphere.

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