Gamma-ray bursts and magnetic storms in... Llandudno?

Posted by mjs76 at May 06, 2011 03:33 PM |
Leicester astronomers and astrophysicists spent the week before Easter in the charming seaside resort of Llandudno, presenting papers and posters at the National Astronomy Meeting 2011.

Over four days, delegates to the Royal Astronomical Society's NAM2011 conference had the chance attend 122 talks, of which no fewer than 13 were given by staff and student from our Department of Physics and Astronomy and another seven were based on research with Leicester involvement. In addition, five of our researchers displayed posters at the event.

Here’s a run-down for those of you who couldn’t make it to the North Wales coast last month:


The SVOM gamma-ray burst mission

SVOM (image: CEA)

Dr Julian Osborne

Scheduled for launch in 2016, SVOM will detect gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in a similar manner to the current, highly successful, Swift satellite, but with greater sensitivity at lower energies. SVOM is a Franco-Chinese mission with some British involvement. The spacecraft’s Micro-channel X-ray Telescope (MXT) is a collaboration between four French institutions and the University of Leicester, based on the innovative MIXS-T instrument which Leicester space scientists have developed for ESA’s forthcoming Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury.

The onset and physics of the X-ray afterglow in Gamma Ray Bursts

Dr Phil Evans

The Swift Burst Analyser is an online facility, recently developed at the University of Leicester, which automatically combines the results of two instruments on Swift: the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) and the X-ray Telescope (XRT). The BAT detects the very fast initial burst of gamma-rays while the XRT is used to study the x-ray afterglow of a GRB. Using the Burst Analyser scientists are able to show that the material expelled in a GRB is travelling at over 99.9% of the speed of light.

Future X-ray missions: the next 15 years

Astro-H (image: JAXA/ISAS)

Mike Watson

New space missions scheduled for launch in the next five years or so will bring a range of new capabilities for studying the extreme universe at x-ray wavelengths. These include: AstroSat, the Indian Space Research Agency’s first astronomical satellite; the Max Planck Instuitute’s eRosita, which has seven modules each containing 54 mirrors; CalTech’s NuStar, the first mission to map the sky in the high-energy x-ray spectrum of 6-79 keV; the Japanese Astro-H which will employ both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ x-ray imaging; and GEMS, the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer from NASA which will use x-rays to determine how space is distorted around black holes. Looking further ahead, an International X-ray Observatory (IXO) is a possible contender for launch in 2022.

The cost window: can we do observatory-class science with small space missions?

Professor Martin Barstow

The amount of money required to design, build and launch orbitting telescopes and observatories can seem, to the ordinary punter, literally astronomical and justifying such missions to the holders of public purse-strings is increasingly difficult. This presentation looked at how recent technological improvements could significantly reduce the cost of research missions.

Galaxies and AGN in the WISE survey

WISE (image: JPL/NASA)

Professor Andrew Blain

WISE is the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer. Launched into a polar orbit in December 2009 and operational until Febuary 2011, it “may well be the definitive all-sky infrared survey from 3-30 microns.” With great timing, data from just over half of the sky was released the week before NAM2011. Among the 250 million(!) objects identified by WISE are 33,000 newly discovered asteroids, 20 previously unknown comets and a rather alarming 133 near-Earth objects.

Dual periodicities in ‘planetary period’ magnetic field oscillations in Saturn’s tail

Dr Gabrielle Provan

Like Earth, Saturn has a magnetic field which is drawn out away from the Sun by the solar wind, creating a ‘plasma sheet’ tail behind the planet. This presentation is based on data gathered by the Cassini probe when it passed through the tail on a sequence of orbits during 2006.

M-I coupling at Jupiter-like exoplanets: implications for detectability of auroral radio emissions

Dr Jonathan Nichols

Generating the most press interest of all the Leicester papers, this research predicts the radio emissions which might be detectable from gas giant planets beyond the solar system. Both Jupiter and Saturn have volcanic moons (Io and Enceladus) which affect the planet’s magnetosphere. As a result the magnetosphere and ionosphere rotate together, generating radio waves. Rapidly rotating Jupiter-sized exoplanets in orbits of about 1-50 astronomical units (AU) should produce distinctive radio emissions detectable from Earth.

Solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling at the Earth

Dr Adrian Grocott

The dynamics of the Earth's local space environment are governed by the interaction between the planet’s magnetosphere and the solar wind. This paper examined how the effects of energetic processes occurring in the magnetotail - the region of the magnetosphere extending millions of kilometres from the Earth, away from the Sun - can be observed in the ionosphere using the SuperDARN ground-based radars operated by the University of Leicester.

The M3 down selection by ESA: a personal perspective


Professor Mark Lester

In February 2011, ESA short-listed four proposals for its M3 mission in 2022: EChO, studying exoplanet atmospheres; LOFT, x-ray astronomy of neutron stars and black holes; STE-QUEST (PDF), measuring the effects of general relativity; and MarcoPolo-R, a mission to return a sample from a near-Earth asteroid. Professor Mark Lester, who sits on ESA’s Solar System and Exploration Working Group (SSEWG), which provides advice to ESA on its science programme, presented an overview of the selection process and then led a discussion on the topic.

Substorm and magnetic storm effects on the cross-tail current sheet

Elizabeth Davey

The current sheet is a region of electric current within the Earth’s plasma sheet, which separates two regions of opposing magnetic field. This research used data from ESA’s quartet of Cluster spacecraft, collected from 2001 to 2007, to examine how geomagnetic activity affects the dynamics of the current sheet.

Planets around white dwarfs: detections at last

Dr Matt Burleigh

When dying stars swell to red giants, before collapsing back to form white dwarfs, any planets not swallowed up by the expansion remain in orbit after the contraction, albeit at greater orbits. This paper presents the results of DODO (Degenerate Objects around Degenerate Objects), a search for such exoplanets around white dwarfs. Among the discoveries is the white dwarf binary Gliese 3483 whose companion seems too cold to be a brown dwarf, but too far out to be a planet.

The Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) and Plato

Two concepts for PLATO (image: ESA)

Dr Matt Burleigh

WASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) is an inter-university collaboration using ground-based observatories to search for exoplanets. NGTS is its proposed successor, a collaboration between the University of Leicester, Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Warwick and the Observatoire de Genève. PLATO is a proposed ESA mission to find Earth-size planets around nearby stars.

White dwarfs and the local interstellar environment

Professor Martin Barstow

The creation of white dwarfs is a surprisingly complex process, involving the recycling of large amounts of material (mainly carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) into the local interstellar medium (LISM). Existing data from FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer) is being combined with new data from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) on Hubble to reveal new insights into the interaction between white dwarfs and their surrounding LISM.


Observing with Swift

Dr Julian Osborne

An overview of the Swift observing opportunities and the the UK Swift Science Data Centre hosted by the University of Leicester. Swift is a sensitive optical to hard x-ray satellite observatory which is able to study pre-planned target classes, as well as having a unique ability to observe within hours new phenomena proposed as ‘targets of opportunity’.

Results from the Swift Supergiant Fast X-ray Transients Project

Artist's impression of an SFXT (image: ESA)

Claudio Pagani

Supergiant Fast X-ray Transients sound extremely cool and interesting – and indeed they are. Discovered only six years ago, an SFXT is a binary system consisting of one very large, very luminous star and one very small, high energy object such as a neutron star, pulsar or black hole which emits gamma-rays during outbursts. This poster summarised results so far from the Leicester-led mission to study SFXTs using the instruments on Swift.

A Fermi-LAT Study of the Active Galaxy NGC 1275

Kate L Dutson

NGC 1275 is the formal name for Perseus A, an active galaxy some 237 million light years away, which produces both high-energy and very-high-energy gamma-rays. This poster, which won a student runner-up prize, summarised research into NGC 1275 and possible sources of the emission detected using the Fermi satellite

Examining the evolution of transient solar wind structures using STEREO/HI

Anthony Williams

NASA’s two STEREO spacecraft carry heliospheric imagers (HIs) which have produced some amazing pictures of sunstorms and coronary mass ejections (CMEs). This study looked at how the light in those HI images has been scattered by the solar wind.

A Novel New Radar Technique to Study Geomagnetic Storms: Superposed Latitude-Velocity-Time Plots

James Hutchinson

Geomagnetic storms cause energy fluctuations in the magnetosphere which can affect technology such as GPS and even national power grids. This study analysed 143 geomagnetic storms using radar data from the SuperDARN network and satellite images of the polar aurorae to investigate the flow of energy throughout the system.

Rishbeth Prize

Back in the 1970s, astrophysicist Henry Rishbeth founded MIST (Magnetosphere, Ionosphere, Solar Terrestrial), an informal community for researchers working in these fields, and since 2005 a 'Rishbeth Prize' has been awarded to the best presentation and best poster at the Spring MIST meeting, held this tear as part of NAM.

This year, both prizes (which are voted for by delegates) went to Leicester students, with James Hutchinson winning Best Poster and Elizabeth Davey winning Best Oral Presentation. Congratulations to both!