Phd and Honours - Honours projects

PhD projects are programs which target significant new bodies of research over a 3-4 year timescale. As an astronomy PhD student you will be involved in developing (with your supervisors) a program of research designed to attack some set of key questions. You will have to write observing proposals, take data, analyse it and prepare it for publication, as well as writing up your results in thesis form. The AAO can offer co-supervision of students in PhD projects together with a University-based supervisor at your home institution.

The following are a few potential projects for PhD students. Astronomy is a subject in which developments move rapidly - so the hot topics by the time a project starts could have changed. All projects are worked out by discussion between you and your prospective supervisor, so treat this list as a source of ideas and a starting point. Members of staff may have other projects waiting in the wings. Students who are interested in subject areas not covered below are encouraged to contact relevant AAO astronomers directly. Students who are interested in projects in astronomical instrumentation should contact Andrew Sheinis, the AAO's Head of Instrumentation.

  • What shapes galaxies?

Supervisor: Caroline Foster
 
Measuring the intrinsic (or three-dimensional) shape of galaxies is a non-trivial task as it is complicated by projection effects. The intrinsic shape of galaxies is a fundamental property that is directly influenced by various galaxy formation processes. One can obtain meaningful constraints on the intrinsic shape of galaxies by combining photometric and kinematic maps for statistical samples of galaxies.
The advent of multi integral field unit spectrographs are enabling the observation of statistically meaningful samples of kinematic maps for the first time. Using data from the SAMI Galaxy Survey, this project will explore and identify the physical mechanisms that influence the intrinsic shape of galaxies. This will provide new constraints for galaxy formation models.
This project involves collaboration within the SAMI Galaxy Survey, the use of data from the Anglo Australian Telescope (Australia's largest optical telescope) and the possibility to be involved in observing and data acquisition. The selected student will acquire experience in developing code, expertise with modern statistical techniques and integral field spectrograph data analysis skills that are easily portable to other fields.
  • Models that shape galaxies

Supervisor: Caroline Foster (AAO) and Kenji Bekki (UWA/ICRAR)
 
The intrinsic shape of galaxies is a fundamental property that is directly influenced by various galaxy formation processes. The intrinsic shape of galaxies is being reliably constrained for the first time by combining photometric and kinematic maps for statistical samples of galaxies using the SAMI Galaxy Survey data. This project will compare these observational results with the latest hydrodynamical simulations of galaxy formation and evolution that can predict the intrinsic shapes and kinematics  of galaxies in a fully self-consistent manner. This comparison thus will allow this project to understand the detail of how different merging histories and dark matter distributions influence the shape of galaxies. This project involves collaboration within the SAMI Galaxy Survey and the possibility to be involved in observing and data acquisition. The student will acquire experience in code development, galaxy modeling, as well as a rare combined observational and theoretical expertise.
  • The Huntsman Telephoto Array: ultra-faint imaging of galaxies

Supervisors: Lee Spitler and Anthony Horton

The Huntsman Telephoto Array is a new astronomical imaging system that makes use of a large array of Canon telephoto camera lenses. Normally used for sports and wildlife photography, this lens array has distinct advantages over conventional telescopes for imaging faint and spatially-extended stellar structures in nearby galaxies. The PhD student on this project will have exclusive access to this new facility, which will be based at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. By identifying new dwarf galaxies and stellar streams around nearby galaxies their historical record of formation can be recovered and we can determine how galaxies assembled their mass. This project will provide an exciting combination of hands-on astronomy instrumentation, image processing and astrophysical analysis. The data obtained will be combined with observational data at other wavelengths, including radio maps of neutral hydrogen gas from the WALLABY survey on Australia’s ASKAP telescope. The Huntsman system is a precursor for a Macquarie-led space-based cubesat facility, the Australian Space Eye.  

Huntsman Array
  • The Rise of the Jellyfish: Galaxies caught in the act of environmentally driven transformation

Supervisor: Matt Owers
 
In this project, the student will study the enigmatic "jellyfish galaxies'" and their surrounding environment. Jellyfish galaxies are found in massive clusters of galaxies and exhibit one-sided trails of extremely blue knots and filaments. These knots and filaments are interpreted as the manifestation of hot, young stars formed in-situ within gas which has been stripped from the parent galaxy, indicating the jellyfish are in the process of being transformed by the environment. Observing galaxies "caught in the act'' of being strongly transformed by the environment will lead to a better understanding of the dominant physical mechanisms at play. 
The student will use integral field spectroscopy (from the new KOALA instrument on the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope and the WiFeS instrument on the 2.3m telescope at Siding Spring Observatory) to investigate the impact of this gas stripping on the star forming properties of the galaxy, and also to investigate the properties of the blue knots and filaments in the tails. Furthermore, the student will use the combination of X-ray information (provided by the Chandra and XMM-newton satellites), which traces the hot intra-cluster medium, and multi-object spectroscopy (from the AAOmega instrument on the AAT), which traces the dynamics of the cluster through galaxy velocities, to obtain a detailed understanding of the environmental conditions required for the formation of a jellyfish galaxy. 
The student will gain valuable skills in collecting, processing and analysing data taken with some of the world's premier instruments and observatories while collaborating with researchers from Australia and around the world.
  • The reality of moving groups

Supervisor: Gayandhi De Silva
 
The GALactic Archaeology with HERMES (GALAH) survey is a major Australian-led high resolution spectroscopic survey aiming to determine the detailed chemical composition of one million stars with the new HERMES spectrograph on the Anglo-Australian Telescope. The primary aim of GALAH is to carry out Galactic Archaeology, that is to unravel the star formation, chemo-dynamical evolution and merger/accretion history of the Milky Way, using the Australian pioneering technique known as "Chemical Tagging". The idea behind chemical tagging is to use the unique elemental abundance patterns to search for stars that were born together, but now dispersed throughout the Galaxy. Previous explorations into chemical tagging with much smaller data sets have revealed the presence of several chemically uniform, yet unbound structures known as "moving groups". The goal of this project is to identify explore and characterize the moving groups in the GALAH database. The potential student will be able to work in collaboration with the broader GALAH team, including experts in Galactic archeology and Stellar Astrophysics in Universities around Australia.
  • The angular momentum of massive galaxies

Supervisor: Sarah Brough

Our current model of the formation of galaxies suggests that they grow gradually over time through mergers with other galaxies.  The most massive galaxies observed today have therefore gone through many such mergers. The initial galaxies are thought to start off as rotating systems and with each merger the galaxy loses more and more rotation until they are barely rotating at all.  However, small studies of some of the most massive galaxies, Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs), find that some are still rotating, in stark contradiction to our current picture.

Until recently, there were only small numbers of observations of these massive galaxies.  The ground-breaking multi-object integral-field SAMI galaxy survey now means that there are observations of hundreds of these galaxies.  This project will therefore use SAMI observations to resolve this conundrum and understand why some massive galaxies are still
rotating.  Integral field observations are the future of astronomy so this project will be an important grounding in a crucial new technique.

  • The unbound stars of massive galaxies

Supervisor: Sarah Brough

One of the pressing, unanswered questions in astronomy is why the most massive galaxies in the Universe are not observed to have grown in mass as much as theoretical models suggest that they should have. A possible solution is that galaxies merging with the most massive galaxies may actually be destroyed into clouds of unbound stars in the process. This would also explain the origin of diffuse, stellar haloes observed around some of the most massive galaxies: Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs). BCGs are massive elliptical galaxies found at the centres of groups and
clusters of galaxies.

This project would utilise data from the multi-wavelength imaging and spectroscopic Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey to select the BCGs and undertake initial surface brightness analyses before obtaining new deeper imaging from world-class international telescopes to measure the mass of diffuse light and its origin for the first time.  This project will provide key skills in data mining, image analysis and obtaining astronomical observations.