The Kuiper Belt is a sea of icy planetesimals residing beyond the orbit of Neptune. These small bodies are the material leftover from the construction of the planets and serve as a fossil record of the Solar System’s history. Dwarf planets Pluto and Eris are respectively the largest and most massive of the known Kuiper belt objects (KBOs). Most KBOs are much smaller than Pluto, and by studying their ensemble properties we can learn about planet formation in our Solar System. By studying their shapes, sizes, compositions, orbits, and other physical characteristics, we can probe the giant planets’ early dynamical history and explore the compositional structure of the Solar System’s primordial planetesimal disk. Most KBOs are too faint for spectroscopy with ground-based telescopes, but by measuring broad-band colors in different optical and near-infrared filters, we obtain a proxy for a planetesimal’s surface composition. By measuring the brightness of a planetesimal over time, we can estimate shape and measure rotation rates.
The main aim of this project is to study the population statistics of the outer Solar System’s small body reservoirs and explore what it can tell us about the conditions in the early Solar System. The PhD project will focus on the performing, analyzing, and interpreting observational data from optical ground-based telescopes to study the physical and orbital properties of distant Solar System planetesimals. There are likely to be opportunities with this project for follow-up observations at UK-supported telescopes and observatories around the world.
Our group are members of the Colours of the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (Col-OSSOS), a large program gathering near-simultaneous optical and near-infrared photometry with the Gemini North Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope of a well characterized sample of ~80 KBOs. We expect this project could involve a component of analyzing Col-OSSOS observations and/or performing and analyzing additional follow-up observations based on Col-OSSOS results. Queen’s University Belfast is a member of both the ATLAS and Pan-STARRS wide-field surveys; an additional component of this project could include mining photometry of KBO detections in these surveys.
Supervisor: Dr. Megan Schwamb