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Undergraduate students visit STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh this summer

Find out about their ground-breaking work to find targets for the world’s largest telescope in space


Meet Michael Sharp and Cameron Robertson

Michael a 3rd year Astrophysics undergraduate, and Cameron who has just finished his 4th year of an Integrated Masters in Physics degree – both at the University of Edinburgh have come to UK ATC this summer to work with Rutherford International Fellow, Dr Olivia Jones. Michael and Alex have been helping Olivia to build the science case for where NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, will look!

Webb is due to be launched in the early 2020s, and will be the largest telescope in space. It will orbit in deep space, roughly 4 times further away than the moon. UK ATC has led the consortium designing and building the MIRI instrument for Webb.

Here Michael and Cameron share what they have been doing to support this future looking astronomical research – where both have been looking at galaxies in different parts of the sky.

Michael, how exciting has this project been for you?

“We discovered a new – as yet unnamed – star forming region! It really doesn’t get any more exciting than that. And that means my name will be on the academic paper too.

 “It’s very exciting indeed!”

WOW. Where?

“It’s in the NGC 6822 region which is about 1.6 million light-years away in the Sagittarius constellation. This is a Local Group galaxy – which includes our own Milky Way.”

What was your role in helping to identify this new region?

“I started with a catalogue of about 30,000 light sources in the galaxy from a combined data set. Some of the data came from the Spitzer Space Telescope which was launched in 2003, and is coming to the end of its life. And other data came from the UKIRT telescope in Hawaii. My task was to find really young stars. I did this by analysing the data for things like mass, radius, luminosity, and environment etc – and was able to narrow the big data set down to a more manageable 100.


Cameron, what has your part of the project involved?

 “I started with unreduced data from the KMOS instrument which is on the Very Large Telescope –currently the world’s most advanced optical telescope, operated by the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The UK ATC in fact had a major role in the design and assembly of this instrument which was installed on the telescope in 2012 – so it was really great to work on the data collected from an instrument that was built here.

“Specifically I was looking at young stars in the NGC 346 cluster in the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is a galaxy near our own Milky Way – to see interesting things happening with them.

“My first job was to reduce the data which I used a software tool to do. From there I could extract the spectra – looking for different spectroscopic lines, and plot them. Then I needed to measure the width of those lines to map the positions of the stars.

“Finding the lines was a BIG thing.

“Now I’m doing the quantitative analysis to learn a lot more about these stars. In fact we’ve learned that what we thought was a single star is actually multiple objects – two or even three stars.

Michael, what have been the highlights of this experience for you?

“This has been a really invaluable experience. At undergraduate level we are solving problems where our lecturers and mentors already know the answer. To take real life data and do all the number crunching and analysis AND discover something new that nobody on the planet knew was there feels very meaningful and energising. The fact that Olivia will be changing her pointing target for the Webb telescope as a result of our work is just mind-blowing.

“My coding skills have also got a lot better. I feel much more confident about my own capabilities. And it’s really re-affirmed my love for astronomy research.”

“When I finish my undergraduate degree I would really love to do a PhD. But I also really enjoy engaging others about astronomy and astronomy research too, so I’d like to combine my research with education outreach too.”

What about you Cameron?

“I’ve really enjoyed building my experience of, and working with, data cubes – with is a bit like plotting data on a graph, but in 3D – with lots more data. I was looking at things like position, strength and wavelength of the light emitted from celestial targets to find the young stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud. It has been a fascinating experience.

“What I think I’d like to do next, is to explore how I can use my physics knowledge and big data management skiIls for real life practical applications. I’m particularly interested in Medical physics – and am excited about investigating that as a possible career route.”



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Last updated: 30 July 2019


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