Introduction to Research at AOP

The Armagh Observatory and Planetarium provides a strong, positive image of Northern Ireland on the international stage. Members of its research staff play a full role in the international astronomical community. They publish their research in international refereed journals, present their results at international conferences, assess grant and research proposals on behalf of external funding agencies,  review scientific papers and edit international academic journals. and serve on committees of bodies such as the:

Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

Royal Astronomical Society (RAS)

Royal Irish Academy (RIA)

Astronomical Science Group of Ireland (ASGI)

International Astronomical Union (IAU)

In addition, staff have access to world-class international facilities provided through the Science & Technology Facility Council (STFC) and UK Government subscriptions and bilateral agreements, or collaborations involving individual researchers. Staff regularly obtain telescope time on international facilities, including the Dunn Solar Telescope at Sacramento Peak Observatory, the New Solar Telescope at Big Bear Solar Observatory, the Mopra radio telescope in Australia, the ESO Very Large Telescope and 18 various spacecraft missions (such as SoHO, SDO, Hinode, Stereo, Swift, XMM-Newton and the Hubble Space Telescope). Furthermore, through our membership of the UK SALT Consortium (UKSC), AOP's researchers have access to the 11-metre diameter Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) located at the Sutherland Observatory, South Africa.

Academic staff obtain research grants from a wide range of grant awarding bodies (e.g. STFC, the Royal Society, the Leverhulme Trust), as well as contributing to raising funding also towards AOP education, outreach and heritage initiatives.

Armagh is also a member of the international consortia involved with the GOTO (Gravitational-wave Optical Transient Observer) optical, LOFAR (LOw FRequency Array) radio and the CTA (Cherenkov Telescope Array) gamma-ray telescopes. Complementing these international facilities, restoration of the Observatory’s historic telescopes has brought opportunities to reintroduce some visual observing from Armagh, while new computer and camera technology has enabled a variety of new automatic observational programmes to be introduced from Armagh, recording data autonomously whenever the sky is clear.

The Northern Ireland Space Strategy, developed by Invest NI, recognises the Space Sector as a significant emerging market encompassing industry, academia and government. The Strategy outlines the critical role that will be played by the Sector in addressing the key challenges facing the human race both now and in the future. It outlines a vision for Northern Ireland as a globally recognised region for space sector innovation and creativity.

Researchers at AOP have long been involved in cutting edge research initiatives that enhance the organisation’s and Northern Ireland’s reputation, nationally and internationally. Our research also contributes to increases opportunities for Northern Ireland to attract additional funding for further collaborative and stand-alone research projects. These projects make significant contributions to both global understanding of the cosmos and to the wider Northern Ireland Economy.

Research Highlights

Below are four examples of how the research undertaken at AOP supports the economy and enhances the international reputation of Northern Ireland as a region of scientific excellence.

SULIS – Solar cUbesats for Linked Imaging Spectropolarimetry satellites

SULIS (named after a Celtic Sun Goddess) will be a flagship UK-led space science mission to study the Sun. It will provide unprecedented measurements of the magnetic field of the Sun’s corona and will answer fundamental questions underpinning the sources of space weather.

DKIST – the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) is under construction on the summit of Haleakalā on Maui, Hawaii to study the Sun’s corona – the tenuous, million-degree plasma that surrounds the Sun. To measure the corona a telescope needs to be sited in a place as free as possible of dust, aerosols and pollutants. The isolated islands of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific provide optimal conditions for clear, “coronal skies”.

PLATO – the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations satellite

A planet around a star other than the Sun is termed an “exoplanet”. The first exoplanet was discovered 20 years ago. Since that time, thousands of planets have been confirmed with many more still awaiting confirmation. It is likely that most stars in our Galaxy have planets around them. There have been several space missions, such as NASA’s Kepler and TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), whose main goal has been to detect exoplanets using the ‘transit’ method.

Earthshine

Discovering the existence of habitable exoplanets in the Universe is a prime goal of astronomy. One of the methods used directed towards this goal is the search for planets with an atmosphere similar to that of planet Earth. We know of thousands of exoplanets orbiting around stars other than our Sun. However, we know very little about the atmospheres and surface of these exoplanets, because light coming from a distant exoplanet is overwhelmed by the glare of its host star. This makes an exoplanet very difficult to analyse: it is like trying to study a grain of dust beside a powerful light bulb.