Summer Research Programme 2018

Oxford Astrophysics will run a summer research programme for undergraduate physics students again in 2018. We anticipate taking about 7 students, and students from the second year and above are welcome to apply. Applications are welcome from institutes outside of Oxford. Unfortunately, due to UK visa regulations, we are only able to accept applications from candidates within the EU.

Students will work with a supervisor in the department, usually a postdoctoral researcher or lecturer, on a self-contained research project. There will also be some lectures on current astrophysics topics. Students are encouraged to take part in department life, joining researchers for coffee, discussions and seminars.

The projects run for typically 8 weeks, nominally July 2nd through till the end of August. The duration may be adjusted to be shorter or longer, or to accommodate summer travel. Students will be paid via a stipend (provisionally £230 per week). The project is full-time but hours can be discussed with your supervisor.


You should email a one-page-only application, in pdf format, to the Graduate Administrator ( by Feb 28 2018, with 'Summer intern application' in the subject line. Students should ask for a short academic reference letter to be emailed to the above email address by the same date. Offers will be made in March.

On your 1-page application you should tell us why you are interested in the programme and which project(s) most interest you. Also include your contact details, your year and course, any undergraduate exam results so far, and contact details (including email) of your academic referee. Please also mention any computer programming experience and any previous research experience.

You are encouraged to informally contact the supervisor(s) to find out more details about the projects that interest you. For any administrative queries, contact Ashling Morris on


Testing AGN unification theory with state-of-the-art radio surveys

Supervisor: Dr Leah Morabito (

Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) are powered by super-massive black holes at the centres of massive galaxies. Observations show a diversity of characteristics that can be attributed to AGN, and it is thought that galaxies with AGN can be unified as a class by the fact that they are viewed along different lines of sight to the AGN. The projected size of extended radio jets, which are present in about 10 percent of AGN, can be used as an orientation indicator to test this unification theory. The project will use the LOFAR Two-metre Sky Survey data release 1, which will provide the most comprehensive test of unification theory to date.

This project will involve using large catalogues, and fits image manipulation. It is appropriate for anyone who has some familiarity with these topics.

Transit and eclipse spectroscopy of hot jupiters with Hubble Space Telescope / WFC3

Supervisor: Dr Suzanne Aigrain (

If a planet transits across the disk of its host star as seen from the Earth, we can measure its radius. By observing the transit as a function of wavelength, we can measure wavelength-dependent changes in the altitude at which the atmosphere becomes opaque, and infer the presence of different gases or condensates in the upper atmosphere. We can also measure the flux emitted by the planet by observing the secondary eclipse, when the planet disappears behind the star. The Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) is one of the workhorse instruments for this type of observations. In this project we will analyse publicly available WFC3 observations of hot Jupiters. The project will involve downloading the data from the HST archive, extracting the spectra and turning them into light curves, modelling the light curves to measure the planet radius or flux, and comparing the resulting planet spectra to the predictions of theoretical models of gas giant planet atmospheres.

This project will use pre-existing python code and iPython notebooks, which the student will modify to adapt them to new datasets. Some prior knowledge of python and/or experience with astronomical data analysis would be an advantage, but is not compulsory.

Instrumentation on the Philip Wetton Telescope

Supervisors: Dr Fraser Clarke & Dr Rob Barnsley (

The Philip Wetton telescope here in Oxford is used for a range of undergraduate projects, some research, and of course public outreach. The telescope is fully automated (robotic), and takes data for a range of projects every clear night. Currently, the only instrument available is a standard CCD camera with a range of colour filters. This project aims to expand the instrumentation capabilites of the observatory by developing some new instruments for spectroscopy or adaptive-optics. A range of possible options is listed below, but interested students are strongly recommended to discuss options with the supervisors before the application deadline -- there is scope to tailor the project to the student's aims. These projects would suit a student with an interest in the more practical side of astronomy.

Potential instrumentation projects include:

  • Automating the existing slit spectrograph to allow robotic operation: The observatory has an existing spectrograph, but it is little used as it is not compatible with robotic operation. This project will involve adding components (e.g. servo motors + controllers) to the spectrograph, and developing control software to allow it to be used remotely. Depending on how the project develops, we will also look at integrating the spectrograph into the existing observatory control software to allow fully robotic spectroscopy for the first time. This project should suit a student with an instrumentation and coding interest; exploiting the spectrograph to its full will require some significant code development.
  • Designing a new spectrograph for an integral field unit: We have an fibre integral field unit (to allow spectroscopy of extended objects such as planets or galaxies), which was built as an MPhys project several years ago. Unfortunately the existing spectrograph is not good enough work efficiently with the IFU, so we need to design a new more suitable spectrograph. This project will involve investigating different optical design options, and then developing a mechanical design around them. Depending on how the project develops, we will attempt to build a first version of the spectrograph in the lab. This project would suit a student with an interest in optical/mechanical design.
  • Characterising a new cheap fast camera for wavefront sensing: We have recently bought a small fast camera based on new CMOS technology, which seems to offer good potential as a wavefront sensing camera -- the first step in building a potential adaptive optics system for the PWT. This project will involve characterising the true performance of the camera in the lab and then on the telescope. Developing an AO system is beyond the scope of this project, but we will attempt to use the camera to characterise the atmosphere above Oxford as input to any future designs. This will involve developing some simple instrumentation and taking large runs of data with the camera. This project would suit a student with an interest in software and data processing/analysis.

As the instrumentation projects are quite specialised, students must speak to the supervisors before applying for the projects. Code for the projects will be mainly based in Python, so experience in this is useful but not necessary. Some of the projects, particularly the wavefront sensing project, will require night-time working to take data.

Citizen Science with the Zooniverse

Supervisor: Dr Helen Spiers (

The Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for the distributed analysis of scientific data through citizen science. Our online platform enables over 1.6 million volunteers from around the globe to participate in more than 70 authentic research projects from a variety of disciplines, from astronomy to biomedical research. As a summer student in the Zooniverse team you will have the opportunity to work with our international team of researchers, web developers and educators, as well as our global network of collaborators and research project leads. There is scope for the project to include many facets, including but not limited to; contributing to the development of novel Zooniverse projects, communicating science with diverse audiences through our varied media channels, developing and editing content for our platform, performing analysis on Zooniverse data, and learning and applying web-development skills.

This project would especially suit a student who is interested in both science communication and who enjoys programming (language isn’t important).

A New Method for Measuring the Sensitivity of an Astronomical Millimetre and Sub-Millimetre Wave Receiver

Supervisors: Dr Boon Kok Tan & Prof Ghassan Yassin (

Superconductor-Insulator-Superconductor (SIS) mixer is the most sensitive quantum detector for astronomical heterodyne observations below 1 THz regime. It has been routinely used in various millimetre and sub-millimetre telescopes that require high resolution and quantum-limited sensitivity for detection of weak astronomical signal, such as the Atacama Large Millimetre/Sub-Millimetre Array (ALMA), which is the largest millimetre and sub-millimetre observatory ever build. The sensitivity of an SIS mixer is quantified in the laboratory by measuring its equivalent noise temperature. This is normally done by comparing the difference in the down-converted output power when the mixer it is illuminated with a hot (room temperature) and a cold (liquid nitrogen) loads.

The aim of this project is to explore a new method in measuring the receiver sensitivity (noise temperature) using the SIS tunnel junction itself as the hot/cold load. This could improve the measurement turnover time, reduce RF losses and allow for the rapid search of the optimum operating parameters where the SIS mixer can achieve best quantum-limited performance. It could also potentially open up a new way to integrate the hot/cold load onto the SIS mixer chip in the future, and provide on-the-fly sensitivity calibration in-situ during observations. This project involves setting up the measurement system using two existing SIS chips/blocks, analyse the mixer performance and compare the measured sensitivity with the traditional optical hot/cold load method.

The project is suitable for students who are interested in learning about astronomical receiver using superconducting materials, basic quantum mixing theory and simulations, and get involved in experimental works. The student work will be supported by an experienced technician and a D.Phil student who is working on developing ultra-sensitive SIS mixers for astronomical observations.

Probing galaxy kinematics in the densest environments

Supervisors: Prof Roger Davies & Sam Vaughan (

Recent advances in instrument technology have opened a new window into our understanding and classification of early-type galaxies. Integral Field Units (IFUs) produce a “cube" of data: an image of a galaxy with a spectrum at every pixel. By looking for the doppler shift of absorption features in a nearby galaxy’s spectrum, we can use these datacubes to build 2-D maps of the motions the stars in the galaxy. It turns out that elliptical galaxies fall into two distinct classes when studied in this way- those which show clear signs of a regularly rotating disk of stars, and those who are supported by random stellar motions with little to no ordered rotation. Galaxies falling into these two categories are dubbed ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ rotators, and there are many open questions about how each category forms. One such open question is the importance of a galaxy’s environment as to whether it becomes a slow or fast rotator. Is there a relationship between a galaxy’s kinematic morphology and the density of its surroundings? This project will use IFU observations of two nearby galaxy clusters to measure the kinematics of ~30 objects and come to your own conclusions.

The project will involve working with 3-D data-cubes, so basic programming skills would be very helpful. Familiarity with python (or a willingness to learn!) is a plus.

Cosmic Rays and Feedback from Supernova Remnant Blast Waves

Supervisor: Dr James Matthews (

Galactic cosmic rays (of energy up to ~100 TeV) are thought to be mostly produced in the shocks in supernova remnants (SNR). As the SNR expands, the pressure from these cosmic rays can become dynamically important. This is interesting, because it changes where the energy density in the SNR is concentrated and how much of the plasma inside the remnant can radiatively cool on a reasonable timescale. Both of these quantities affect how much energy and momentum SNRs can deposit into the surrounding medium, which is an important ingredient in galaxy evolution models.

This project will involve hydrodynamic simulations of simple "Sedov-Taylor" blast waves -- basically spherical explosions -- with cosmic rays being injected at the blast wave shock. The student will be responsible for running some of these hydrodynamic models and interpreting the results. If time, there is a possible extension involving the introduction of radiative cooling which will cause a transition out of the Sedov-Taylor phase.

The student should have an interest in numerical simulations and theoretical astrophysics, and enjoy programming. Some experience with fluid dynamics is desirable, but not essential.

Studying the Non-Resonant Hybrid Instability with MHD Simulations

Supervisor: Dr James Matthews (

The origin of the highest energy cosmic rays is still uncertain and represents a question of profound astrophysical importance. In this project, we will study the acceleration of cosmic rays and, in particular, carry out simulations of the turbulent instability – known as the Non-Resonant Hybrid (NRH) instability -- that is crucial to explain cosmic ray origins. We will use magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) simulations to model the NRH instability, using a time-varying cosmic ray return current according to a simple, but physically motivated, prescription. Our results will provide more robust constraints on the timescales for magnetic field amplification and represent the first investigation of time-varying currents in MHD simulations of this type.

Modelling ionization cones around active black holes

Supervisor: Dr Miguel Pereira Santaella (

The accretion of material by supper massive black holes in the centre of galaxies is one of the most energetic processes in the Universe. But this accretion takes place in deeply dust-embedded regions and the radiation from the accretion disk can only escape in some favoured directions. Therefore, most of the time, the direct view of these processes is obscured by dust in our line of sight. However, in some cases, the escaping energetic radiation illuminates the disk of the host galaxy and their effects can be used to indirectly measure the black hole activity.

In this summer project, the student will quantify these effects, mainly ionization and heating of the interstellar medium, using radiative transfer codes. These models will be used to interpret observations of nearby galaxies obtained with the integral field spectrograph MUSE on the Very Large Telescope (Chile). The student will learn to work with astronomical data cubes and radiative transfer codes.

Basic knowledge of Python is required.

Measuring black hole accretion flows with relativistically broadened Iron lines

Supervisors: Dr Adam Ingram & Dr Sara E. Motta (

A stellar-mass black hole is created by the complete gravitational collapse of the core of a massive star into a singularity so compact that there is a point -- the event horizon -- beyond which the escape velocity is greater than the speed of light. Just outside of the event horizon, the gravitational field is so strong that some of the most exotic predictions of General Relativity are though to occur. Black hole X-ray binary systems, in which gas accreted from a normal star glows brightly in X-rays before being swallowed by a stellar-mass black hole, provide an opportunity to observe the vicinity of black hole horizons. However, the region of interest is far too small to directly image, and therefore mapping techniques are required to infer the geometry of the accreting material. This project will involve modelling the spectrum of a system called H 1743--322, using high quality X-ray data taken by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton and NASA's NuSTAR. Of particular interest is the Iron emission line that is produced through irradiation of the accretion disk by hard X-rays emitted by a very hot plasma located close to the black hole. The line is narrow in the restframe, but the rapid orbital motion of the disk material and the gravitational pull of the black hole distort the shape of the line, resulting in a broadened and skewed line profile in the observer's frame. By modelling the line profile, it is therefore possible to measure properties of the disk such as its inner radius and orientation.

The work will be carried out using X-ray analysis software that is fairly straightforward to pick up for anyone with a basic knowledge of programming.

Unveiling the secrets of black hole accretion: simultaneous spectral and timing analysis of a Galactic black hole binary

Supervisors: Dr Sara E. Motta & Dr Adam Ingram (

Low-mass X-ray binaries are accreting double systems harbouring a compact object, either a neutron star or a black hole, that is fed mass by a Sun-like stellar companion. Accretion takes place through an accretion disk, where matter is heated through viscosity to temperatures high enough to radiate in the X-ray band. A few tens of galactic low-mass X-ray binaries contain stellar-mass black holes only a few times heavier then the Sun, but able to power amongst the most powerful astrophysical sources in the Universe.

The main characteristic of accreting stellar mass black holes is the very fast and dramatic changes in their emission that are revealed in the energy domain though variations in their X-ray energy spectra, as well as in the time-domain, which is typically investigated using the Fourier analysis. Power-density spectra (PDS) are one of the main products of Fourier analysis. PDS from accreting black holes typically show a wealth of broad and narrow features that can be related to the properties of the matter orbiting the black hole. Particularly interesting are the so-called quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs), narrow features with a clear centroid frequency, which are interpreted as the effect of strong gravity on matter orbiting the central black hole according to the prediction of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

QPOs have been known for many years, but their exact origin is still debated and the emission process producing them still unclear. However, changes in the energy spectra of accreting black holes are tightly linked to changes in the PDS and of QPOs in particular. For this reason, the simultaneous analysis of energy and power-density spectra across the changes in the emission from an accreting black hole constitute a powerful way to shed light not only on the emission processes at the base of QPOs, but on the core physics powering accreting black holes.

This project will be focussed on the spectral analysis of a well-known black hole candidate low-mass X-ray binary, for which a large amount of archival data (mostly still to be analysed in detail) from the X-ray satellite RTXE are available. More then 15 years of observations of RXTE largely contributed to the advance in our knowledge of black hole physics, and the full potential of such data is still to be exploited. The dataset that will be used in this project constitutes the ideal benchmark to better understand the correlated spectral and timing properties of an intriguing black hole candidate.

Probing gravity at the galaxy scale

Supervisor: Dr Harry Desmond (

A range of modified gravity theories predict galaxy-scale deviations from General Relativity that are functions of basic gravitational variables, including Newtonian potential, acceleration, and spacetime curvature. These deviations -- and their dependence on gravitational field strength -- provide novel means of testing GR in the underexplored intermediate regime between Solar System and cosmological scales. In this project, the student will build on previous work at Oxford (arXiv:1705.02420) to identify regions of the local universe especially suitable for testing particular modified gravity models. The student will then compile relevant observational data on galaxies in these regions to estimate the power of tests of GR that they may afford, and, time-permitting, use them to quantitatively constrain gravitational parameters. The project will provide an opportunity to gain hands-on experience not only of gravity theory, but also (increasingly important in our "big data" era) of galaxy surveys and statistical methods of inference.

It is expected that all work will be done in python, and hence a basic knowledge of this language will be required.

The connection between late-type galaxies and their dark matter halos

Supervisors: Dr Harry Desmond & Dr Harley Katz (

Galaxy datasets that contain both resolved dynamics and high-quality photometry provide our best handle on the relation between luminosity, stellar mass and dark matter mass. This in turn provides important information on the properties of stars, the structure formation history of the universe, and the nature of dark matter. In this project, the student will analyse a state-of-the-art galaxy database (SPARC; to extract some of this information. In particular, the student will empirically constrain the structure of the dark matter halos in which late-type galaxies reside -- including its dependence on galaxy properties such as stellar mass -- and search for gradients in stellar metallicity as a function of radius. There may be time for further analysis of this information-rich data, of the student's choosing.

It is expected that all work will be done in python, and hence a basic knowledge of this language will be required.

Visualisation of dynamical systems

Supervisor: Prof Katherine Blundell (

The Global Jet Watch observatories continually perform spectroscopic monitoring of evolving dynamical systems in our Galaxy. These observatories are embedded in schools and the goal of this summer project is to develop visualisation tools that communicate our research programmes to these schools via our website. The ideal student would be skilled in python coding, have sound dynamical understanding, and artistic tendencies to help promote the understanding of subtle concepts to teenagers from different cultures and backgrounds.

Frequency Multiplication with Superconducting Tunnel Junctions

Supervisor: Prof Ghassan Yassin (

Radio-Telescopes at millimetre and submillimere wavelengths employ heterodyne receivers to detect spectral lines emitted by astronomical sources. Detection of these signals is based on Superconductor-Insulator-Superconductor (SIS) mixers that down-convert the high frequency signal to an intermediate frequency (IF) at around 2–10 GHz.

An important component of the receiver is the Local Oscillator (LO) source that provides the coherent THz signal required for down-conversion. Almost all LO sources used in existing SIS receivers at millimeter wavelength are based solid state Schottky diodes that have been successful in providing tunable power of a few hundred milliwatts to pump SIS mixers over a relatively large bandwidth. It is however evident that at THz frequencies the power provided by Schottky sources is reduced substantially and hence considerable effort in the receiver design is needed to pump the mixer. Moreover, since the LO power is provided externally through an optical a beam combiner and an optical window in the cryostat, only a small fraction of the LO output power reaches the SIS detector because of optical losses. In this project, we will explore an alternative method of generating LO power, by utilizing the harmonics current generation in SIS tunnel junctions. An attractive feature of this design is that the SIS LO source for pumping the mixer and the SIS detector itself can be fabricated in the same photolithography process, hence both can be integrated on a single chip. The resulting integrated mixer-LO chip can include all the required RF electromagnetic circuitry of the mixer, the LO source, and the other ancillary circuit components such as filters and impedance transformers between them.

The student will start by reviewing the physics of harmonic generation and work that has already been done in this area. They will then focus on the simulation of superconducting transmission lines required for the frequency multiplication device.

Studying the Stellar Populations of Low-mass Early-type Galaxies with Long-slit Spectroscopy

Supervisor: Dr Yiqing Liu (

Studying galactic chemical abundance is key for understanding the big picture of galaxy formation and evolution. The stellar populations of massive galaxies have been much explored in the literature. However, for low-mass early-type galaxies, the relations between their basic stellar population parameters (e.g. age, metallicity, and abundance ratios) and galactic mass or environment remain ambiguous. The aim of this project is to study the stellar populations of low-mass early-type galaxies in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, based on the long-slit spectra which were taken from the Double Spectrograph on the Palomar 200-inch Telescope. During this program, the student will have an experience with the raw data reduction on spectroscopy, as well as the basic spectral analysis such as line-index measurement. Furthermore, he/she will try stellar population analysis if the time allows. The softwares that will be used are primarily IRAF and Python. From a theoretical view, the student will learn about stellar and galactic physics at the same time.

Any undergraduate students with the basic physics knowledge and computer programming skills are suitable for this study.

Galaxy mass assembly in their large-scale environment

Supervisor: Dr Clotilde Laigle (

Galaxies are not uniformly distributed in the Universe. A large fraction of them are gathered in groups, which are themselves embedded into the ‘’cosmic web’’: a huge filamentary network of walls surrounding voids, intersecting into filaments, themselves crossing at nodes where sit the most massive groups. Hence galaxy environment can be defined at two levels: the group environment and the larger scale cosmic web environment. Galaxies accrete cold gas - the fuel for them to form stars - from cosmic filaments. Therefore, their mass assembly is partly shaped by their location in the cosmic web. But the effect of this large-scale environment is expected to be further modulated by the “group environment” which also plays a role in regulating star formation activity. Understanding how this modulation takes place is essential to refine our understanding of galaxy evolution. The student will make use of the galaxy, group and filament catalogs already extracted from the high-quality photometry of the COSMOS field to investigate how group properties are dependent on the cosmic web environment. Depending on the progress of the work, this project may lead to a publication.

Some programming skills are a plus.

Bringing Hubble into the classroom

Dr Rebecca Bowler & Dr Sian Tedaldi (

All of the major observing facilities (e.g the Hubble Space Telescope) provide free access to all their archival data. While this data can be downloaded by anyone, the process to reduce these raw files is not straightforward, restricting the use of such an archive to professional astronomers. The goal of this summer project is to develop an online interface that will guide users through the process of producing astronomical images or spectra. The project will allow the summer student to get hands on with real Hubble images and/or spectroscopy data from ESO. During the project the student will 1) learn about the essential steps in astronomical data reduction 2) create a web interface to the required reduction codes and 3) develop an outreach workshop based around the interface. There will be considerable freedom in the direction of the project depending on the interest of the student.

This tool will be incorporated into the Department of Physics’ highly active outreach programme which engaged over 20,000 school children last year through activities such as talks, workshops and competitions. The tool will allow school groups to explore real research methods in astronomy and provide a platform for them to continue their investigations at home. The finished resources will be freely available online and promoted widely to other educational providers as a tool for encouraging participation and progression in Physics.

Experience with creating websites and scripting in Python would be advantageous, but is not essential. Interest in promoting astronomy in schools is required.

The evolution of galaxy alignments

Supervisor: Dr Elisa Chisari (

Galaxy shapes align with each other as a consequence of gravitational tides in the large-scale structure of the Universe. Existing models assume that the galaxy alignment is imprinted by the tidal field of the Universe at the galaxy’s formation time, but there is no conclusive evidence in this regard. Understanding this time evolution of galaxy alignments is crucial for building robust models for galaxy formation and cosmological applications. In this project, we will analyse the relation between galaxy shapes and tides at different epochs in a simulation of the Universe. We will look for progenitors of the galaxies of today, and understand how their alignment with the tidal field has changed throughout cosmic time.

Required skills: Familiarity with python or a similar language for post-processing of the simulation data. A basic knowledge of cosmology is ideal, but will not be required.