Solar system studies

Orbiting our Sun are millions of asteroids and comets that hold clues to how planetary systems form and evolve. We perform observational studies to unravel these clues, and reveal interesting facts about the asteroids and comets themselves. Most of our research is observationally led, with significant allocations of observing time on telescopes at ESO and La Palma. We are part of the asteroid science programme within the Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium, and members of the NEOShield-2 Project, the UK-LSST Consortium and the WASP Consortium.

Group Members

Prof. Alan Fitzsimmons is particularly interested in asteroid photometry, cometary size distributions and evolution, and NEO/comet spectroscopy. He is co-Lead of the Pan-STARRS 1 Inner Solar System Survey. He is also a member of the NEOShield-2 project, the ESA Rosetta ground-based support team, and the ISSI teams on Near-Sun Comets and Main-Belt Comets Main-Belt Comets. When he's not teaching at QUB he sometimes manages to escape to places like this.

Dr. Wes Fraser is an expert on Trans-Neptunian Objects that mark the outermost edge of our planetary system, studying their colours and compositions. Wes was the Plaskett Research Fellow at the University of Victoria in Canada, and is now a Queen's Research Fellow. He is Principal Investigator on the COL-OSSOS project, running alongside the OSSOS project. Watch him explain his research.

Dr. Pedro Lacerda researches the formation and evolution of cometary bodies and the rotation properties of Trans-Neptunian Objects. Pedro was originally a Royal Society Newton Fellow at QUB, then became a Research Group Leader at the Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research, before returning to QUB as a member of Faculty.

Dr. Michele Bannister is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, analysing Pan-STARRS data and looking for asteroids undergoing mass loss through collisions and sublimation. She also searches the outer Solar System for new icy worlds with the OSSOS survey, and studies the colours of icy TNOs as a Co-Investigator on Col-OSSOS. You can follow her adventures via Twitter @astrokiwi.

Dr. David Young is a software developer, working on providing Level 2/3 work packages to enable solar system science on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. He also works part of his time on supporting the ATLAS project work within the Supernovae and Transient group here at the ARC.

Meabh Hyland is a PhD student studying the photometric properties of Trans-Neptunian Objects using Pan-STARRS 1, and performing comet spectroscopy to measure cometary compositions.

Tom Seccull is a PhD student studying the colours and physical properties of Trans-Neptunian Objects, and just loves using the X-SHOOTER pipeline.

Jamie Robinson is a PhD student studying formation processes of solar system binaries, and enjoys making cool python movies of things hitting and sticking to other things.

Rick Smith is a PhD student measuring the properties of TNOs in HST data, and he is spoiled by the point spread functions he has to deal with.

Chris Gibson is a PhD student studying comets.

Previous group members include:

  • Stephen Lowry - Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Kent, England.
  • Colin Snodgrass - Astronomer and planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
  • Henry Hsieh - Research Scientist at the Planetary Research Institute, USA.
  • Larry Denneau - Lead software engineer on the ATLAS project in Hawai'i.
  • Andrew McNeill - Postdoc at Northern Arizona University, USA.
  • Michael Marsset - Postdoctoral Associate at MIT.


Asteroid Itokawa as imaged by the Hayabusa Spacecraft (Image courtesy ISAS/JAXA)

Between the planets Mars and Jupiter lies the main asteroid belt, where Earth-bound telescopes have so far discovered over 700,000 small rocky bodies orbiting our Sun. Some of these objects form a source for the near-Earth asteroid population.

Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) pose an immediate threat to the Earth through the possibility of impact. From 2005-2008 we operated UKAPP in order to improve our knowledge of this threat, and occasionally still assist in this area. They also offer an exciting opportunity to study small asteroids brought to us from the asteroid belt, and test dynamical and physical theories of small body evolution. We determine the composition of these bodies through multi-colour photometry and spectroscopy, to assist theoretical models in disentangling the possibles sources of NEOs. An important project that started in 2012 is NEOShield, an international effort to investigate the best ways to deflect oncoming asteroids before they impact. Initially a 3.5 year project starting in 2012, this project successfully evaluated what we know, and importantly what we don't know, about moving asteroids. This is continued via EU Horizon 2020 funding as NEOShield-2. By the end of 2017 the project obtained and published studies on the nature of NEOs and how to avoid impacts by using a kinetic impactor.

A primary focus of our current research is asteroid science with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope. Surveying the sky since May 2010, this facility has made 20 million asteroid detections. We are using this unique resource to understand the spin distribution of small main-belt asteroids, searching for contact binaries that may result from asteroid-asteroid collisions or YORP spin-up, and looking for for real-time collisions.

Comets and other icy bodies

Comet 67P/Curyumov-Gerasimenko observed as part of the ESA Rosetta support campaign.

Cometary nuclei are the most primitive bodies that exist in our Solar system. The current generation of 4-m and 8-m telescopes allow us to derive the properties of cometary nuclei such as size, spin-rate and colour. Although we occasionally study bright long-period comets such as Hale-Bopp or McNaught, many of the comets we study are short-period comets. Also called Jupiter-family comets, these originate from the Kuiper-Belt. The target of the Rosetta mission, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, was such a comet. We were part of the ground-based observation programme lead by Colin Snodgrass in support of this once-in-a-lifetime scientific project, and co-organised a major international meeting on the new findings in London in 2016.

In recent years a new population of comets have been discovered in the main asteroid belt. These main-belt comets may be a way of identifying the source of Earth's water. Several of the mysterious objects have now been discovered/observed with Pan-STARRS 1, and we are working with Henry Hsieh at PSI to search for more signs of water in the asteroid belt, and are part of the Main-Belt Comet Team at ISSI to push these studies forward.

A fascinating population of comets are the Sungrazers - comets that approach the Sun within 1 Solar radius. Over 3,000 of these objects have now been observed by Solar observatories being vaporised by the Sun's intense heat. We are members of an International team to investigate this unique population. We are leading a programme to try and detect these comets from Earth before their death-plunge. In 2015 we observed a similar comet - a Sunskirter - from Earth for the first time, in collaboration with colleagues from Lowell Observatory and University of Maryland.

Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs)

The minor planets orbiting beyond Neptune have surfaces that are tracers of the composition of the original planetesimal disk, and many have orbits produced by the outward migration of Neptune. We are involved in several major studies to discover new worlds (OSSOS) and measure TNO colours (Col-OSSOS), and conduct ongoing programs to measure spectra, reflected surface light as TNOs rotate, and understand how these planetesimals form (many as binary systems) in the initial disk.

Interstellar Objects (ISOs)

During the formation and evolution of our Solar system, the planets have ejected trillions of bodies into interstellar space. The Oort Cloud will also have lost many comets due to passing stars galactic tides. If other planetary systems do the same, then interstellar space should contain many of these objects, and some should occasionally be visible passing through our Solar system. In 2017 we were part of a study that estimated an upper limit to the number of ISOs, and we led three observational studies of the first interstellar object, 1I/`Oumuamua. In 2018-19 we are part of an international study of interstellar objects.

The group meets each week to discuss our research and review papers in the literature.

public/research_areas/solar_system/start.txt · Last modified: 2018/11/02 15:32 by Michele Bannister

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