Summer Research Programme 2020

Please note: In light of the current COVID-19 situation, regrettably, we have taken the very difficult decision to cancel our programme for this summer. Please check back later this year for details on the summer 2021 programme.

Oxford Astrophysics will run a summer research programme for undergraduate physics students again in 2020. We anticipate taking about 4 students. 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 1st July 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 as employees of the University, receiving a gross salary of approximately £300 per week (subject to tax and National Insurance deductions). 75% of the salary due for the entire project will be advanced during the first week, and the rest will be paid after completion of the project. The project is full-time but hours can be discussed with your supervisor.

Eligibility

Students currently in the second or third year of a relevant undergraduate degree are eligible to apply. Students who have completed a 3-year undergraduate degree and are now taking a taught Masters course are also eligible, as long as they are not in their final year. 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.

How to apply

You should email a one-page-only application, in pdf format, to the Graduate Administrator (ashling.gordon@physics.ox.ac.uk) by Friday 6th March 2020, 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 please nominate 3 projects that take your interest, stating order of preference. Please tell us why you are interested in the programme and why you are interested in your nominated projects. Your 1-page application should also include your contact details, your year and course, a summary of your 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. Please note that applications longer than 1 page will not be considered.
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 Gordon on ashling.gordon@physics.ox.ac.uk

Additional opportunities

We additionally anticipate taking two extra interns through the UNIQ+ scheme, which has a separate application process (see http://www.ox.ac.uk/graduateaccess/uniqplus for details) and an earlier application deadline of 24th February 2020.

You may also be interested in applying for a separate internship programme ran by the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division focused on the history of science, with the aim of diversifying and decolonising the higher education curriculum. For more details on this programme, see https://www.mpls.ox.ac.uk/equality-and-diversity/diversifying-stem-curriculum (note the application deadline of 6th March 2020.

Projects

Looking for activity cycles in exoplanet host stars

Supervisor: Prof Suzanne Aigrain (suzanne.aigrain@physics.ox.ac.uk)

The existence of a 22-year solar activity cycle is well established, but its origin is not well understood. There exists an interesting correlation between those cycles, their detailed properties (such as the peak sunspot number and the prolongued Maunder minima) and some aspects of the orbital motion of the Solar System planets (see e.g. Jose 1965). No plausible physical mechanism has been proposed to explain this correlation so far. However, we now know of thousands of exoplanet systems, and these offer an opportunity to test whether such correlations exist in stars other than the Sun. More generally, looking for activity cycles in stars other than the Sun is valuable because it provides additional examples of an ill-understood phenomenon. The project will consist of looking for activity cycles (quasi-periodic changes in the overall activity level of the star) in stars known to host multiple planets. This will involve selecting appropriate systems from public databases of known exoplanets, downloading public radial velocity and light curve data, and analysing those data to look for periodic signals. In the event that activity cycles are detected, we will also look for correlations between those cycles and the orbital configurations of the exoplanet systems.

Required skills: Familiarity with simple celestial mechanics, basic coding ability (preferably python).

3D reconstruction of 2D datasets through cross correlations

Supervisor: Dr David Alonso (David.Alonso@physics.ox.ac.uk)

A number of observables in cosmology, such as the lensing of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), or the thermal Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect, are intrinsically two-dimensional (i.e. they consist of maps projected on the sphere). These same fields are, however, correlated with the large-scale cosmic inhomogeneities traced by the distribution of galaxies, for which we have three-dimensional information. In this project we will exploit this correlation to reconstruct large-scale, three-dimensional maps of the basic physical quantities (mass density, cosmic gas pressure) that form the basis of these two-dimensional datasets. The project will use both simulated and real data from the Planck satellite and a number of public galaxy catalogs.

Required skills: Some programming experience with python. Experience with C/Fortran is also desirable, but not essential.

Measuring masses of black holes that lurk in the centres of star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud with HARMONI and the ELT

Supervisors: Prof Niranjan Thatte (Niranjan.Thatte@physics.ox.ac.uk) & Prof Michele Cappellari (michele.cappellari@physics.ox.ac.uk)

The young star cluster R136 in the Large Magellanic Cloud (the nearest neighbour galaxy to the Milky Way) is thought to harbour an Intermediate Mass Black Hole at its centre, with a mass around 10000 M_sun. Using the exquisite spatial resolution provided by HARMONI@ELT and its adaptive optics systems, we plan to measure the spectra of individual stars in the core of the R136 cluster. Using the Doppler shifts of their line-of-sight velocities, derived from the spectra, we can compare the cluster’s kinematics with models of differing black hole masses to estimate the central black hole mass in a robust manner. This technique is used on ensemble (unresolved) stellar populations in the cores of galaxies, but has never been used with resolved stellar spectra. The summer project is to carry out detailed simulations using the HARMONI simulator HSIM, and make quantitative estimates of black hole mass, and the statistical significance level of the result. Furthermore, we could combine the HARMONI spectra with proper motions measured with the camera MICADO to further tighten the error bars using full 3D-motions of every star.

3D printing mirror prototypes for ELT-HARMONI

Supervisor: Dr John Capone (john.capone@physics.ox.ac.uk)

The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is currently being built by the European Southern Observatory. Upon its completion in 2025, this revolutionary scientific project will allow us to address many of the most pressing unsolved questions about the Universe: discovering planets around other stars, probing the first objects in the Universe, and unveiling the nature and distribution of the dark matter and dark energy which dominate the Universe. The ELT will enable these discoveries thanks to built-in adaptive optics (AO) and a 39 metre diameter primary mirror capable of collecting 13 times more light than today’s largest optical telescopes.
The University of Oxford is leading, jointly with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the construction of HARMONI, an integral field spectroscope that will be one of the two “first-light” instruments for the ELT. Integral field spectroscopy, also called 3D spectroscopy, is a recent instrumental technique which allows observers to simultaneously obtain the full set of spectra from all astrophysical sources in a small sky region. In addition to managing the overall project, the visible and infrared instruments group at Oxford is responsible for building a key system of the instrument: the spectrograph.

Our group is interested in the increasing possibility of producing mirrors via 3D printing for prototyping and outreach. One potential method is described in Vaidya and Solgaard 2018 (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41378-018-0015-4). Students participating in the summer programme will work to implement and test such methods with the goal of demonstrating the suitability of 3D printed mirrors for a range of HARMONI activities.

Required skills: General knowledge of optics, experience handling optics (e.g. in undergraduate practicals). Desirable skills: Familiarity with CAD software, experience with a scripting language (e.g. Python).

Radiometric measurements of diffraction gratings for ELT-HARMONI

Supervisor: Dr John Capone (john.capone@physics.ox.ac.uk)

The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is currently being built by the European Southern Observatory. Upon its completion in 2025, this revolutionary scientific project will allow us to address many of the most pressing unsolved questions about the Universe: discovering planets around other stars, probing the first objects in the Universe, and unveiling the nature and distribution of the dark matter and dark energy which dominate the Universe. The ELT will enable these discoveries thanks to built-in adaptive optics (AO) and a 39 metre diameter primary mirror capable of collecting 13 times more light than today’s largest optical telescopes.
The University of Oxford is leading, jointly with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the construction of HARMONI, an integral field spectroscope that will be one of the two “first-light” instruments for the ELT. Integral field spectroscopy, also called 3D spectroscopy, is a recent instrumental technique which allows observers to simultaneously obtain the full set of spectra from all astrophysical sources in a small sky region. In addition to managing the overall project, the visible and infrared instruments group at Oxford is responsible for building a key system of the instrument: the spectrograph.

Diffraction gratings are critical to the overall performance of the HARMONI spectrographs. To understand the impact of these components, our group is developing a radiometric test bench to measure the performance of delivered components. Students participating in the summer programme will work to automate and demonstrate the functionality this setup.

Required skills: Experience with a programming language (ideally Python or LabVIEW). Desirable skills: General knowledge of optics and statistics, experience handling optics (e.g. in undergraduate practicals)

Summer Placement Project with SKA-1 Low

Supervisor: Dr Kris Zarb Adami (kristian.zarbadami@physics.ox.ac.uk)

The Low-Frequency Aperture Array (LFAA) part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is mainly concerned with the detection and imaging of the Epoch of Reionisation (EOR), an era in the universe where the first structures started to form. The detection of the EOR is notoriously difficult and is plagued with lots of instrumental systematics that need to be carefully understood and measured. This project is mainly concerned with determining the optimal positioning of broadband antennas within an SKA-1LOW station in order to beat down the systematics that arise from the response of each station to the sky. In this project the student will be expected to employ standard techniques and novel machine learning algorithms in order to optimise the distribution of the antennas within a station with respect to the sensitivity to the EOR signal taking into account various constraints such as the mutual coupling between antennas, the effect of mutual coupling on polarisation at wide angles and the routing of the cables between the antennas and the central processing facility. If there is time, the student could also pursue the optimisation problem further and study various symmetric layouts of antennas that could potentially be sensitive to particular modes of the EOR power spectrum

Statistical methods for cosmic microwave background experiments

Supervisor: Dr Maximilian Abitbol (maximilian.abitbol@physics.ox.ac.uk)

The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is light from the Big Bang that contains an imprint of fluctuations in the early universe as well as their subsequent evolution. Current experiments aim to detect a faint pattern in the polarization of the CMB, called B-modes, generated by primordial gravitational waves. These gravitational waves are thought to be created by inflation, a rapid exponential expansion of the universe in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Detecting evidence for inflation would be a breakthrough in modern cosmology.

We are studying a variety of CMB analysis methods to learn about the beginnings of the universe. In order to measure B-modes in the CMB, precise statistical methods are used to identify and isolate the CMB signal from noise and other non-cosmological signals in the foreground of our Galaxy. The main focus of the project(s) will be to develop, apply, and test new statistical methods. The methods include (i) a moment expansion approach to parametric foreground modelling supported by Bayesian evidence or similar criteria and/or (ii) regression with Gaussian processes to describe modelling residuals. We will use existing observations as well as simulations to test our results.

Required skills: Familiarity with Python or similar languages. An interest in statistics would be helpful as well.

Impact of a Galaxy’s Gas Mass onGiant Molecular Cloud Properties

Supervisor: Dr Kearn Grisdale (kearn.grisdale@physics.ox.ac.uk)

From observations we are able to constrain the properties of Giant Molecular Clouds (GMCs) in our own galaxy and over the last decade several simulations are able to reproduce such clouds in Milky Way-like environments. From high resolution hydrodynamical simulations of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC respectively) the student will measure the gas and stellar properties of GMCs. By comparing them to clouds found in similar Milky Way-like simulations the impact of the host galaxy’s mass and surface density on GMC properties will be determined. Furthermore, by comparing to observations the student will be able to assess whether simulations and/or analysis need to be tuned based on the galaxy’s mass to produce realistic GMCs.

Required skills: Ability to write, run and trouble shoot analysis programs. Preferably in Fortran, Python or both. Desirabe skills: Experience running programs from the command line, and using SSH to log into “supercomputers” remotely.