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Astrophysics Research Centre

School of Mathematics and Physics

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.

Group Members

Prof. Alan Fitzsimmons is particularly interested in asteroid photometry, cometary size distributions and evolution, and NEO/comet spectroscopy. He is currently a member of the Pan-STARRS 1 Solar System Survey and the ATLAS Survey projects. He is also an advisor to the ESA Hera Mission. He is co-chair of the ISSI 'Oumuamua team. He was co-Lead of the Pan-STARRS 1 Inner Solar System Survey and 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. Meg Schwamb is a lecturer in the ARC. Meg's research focuses on how planets and their building blocks form and evolve. With ground-based surveys, Meg studies our Solar System's small body reservoirs, in particular focusing on the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune. She also utilizes citizen science to mine large datasets for Solar System science. Meg is involved in the Planet Four online citizen science projects, which enlists the public to help study the seasonal processes of the Martian south pole and map the distribution of ridges at the Martian mid-latitudes.Meg is also co-chair of the LSST Solar System Science Collaboration and the Solar System Point of Contact within the LSST:UK Science Working Group.

Dr. Grigori Fedorets is a postdoctoral research fellow, studying asteroids of the inner Solar System. In particular, he would like to bring a moon to Earth – albeit a small one, of which there are some captured temporarily around the Earth at any given time. By being involved in preparatory work for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), he is working towards achieving that goal. He is also studying what kind of knowledge on asteroids can be extracted from the high astrometric precision of ESA's Gaia mission.

Dr. David Young is a software developer, who worked on investigating Level 2/3 work packages to enable solar system science on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and is now writing the pipeline for SOXS as part of the Supernovae and Transient group here at the ARC, but still finds time to eyeball ATLAS data.

Dr Jamie Robinson is a postdoctoral research fellow. His main focus is to extract science from a large database of asteroid observations produced by the ATLAS Survey. This currently involves fitting a range of phase curve models in an efficient and automated fashion, with the goal of producing a large dataset of reliable asteroid parameters. Jamie was formerly an ARC PhD student, investigating the origin and evolution of transneptunian binaries via N-body methods. Furthermore, he was previously enrolled in the LSSTC DSFP.

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.

Laura Buchanan is a PhD student studying peculiar Trans-Neptunian Objects as revealed by the OSSOS and Col-OSSOS surveys.

Matthew Dobson is a postgraduate research student studying the photometry of Trans-Neptunian Objects and Centaurs using data from the ATLAS survey, as well as searching for bright distant Solar System objects in the ATLAS dataset.


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/Churyumov-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 every other week to discuss our research and review papers in the literature.

public/research_areas/solar_system/start.txt · Last modified: 2021/03/03 15:37 by James Robinson

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