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British Astronomy - Astronomical Research

The RAS collected data about the areas of research covered by British astronomers in the RAS-PPARC Demographic Survey of 2003.  About 80% of the effort was being put into various areas of astronomy itself, and 20% into solar system studies (including the sun).  30% of the effort was being put to research into galaxies and cosmology, 12% into stars; a further 10% of effort went into the study of radio, X-ray, UV, infra red and sub-millimetre point sources, which must cover the subject matter of both stars and galaxies.  Instrumentation was 10% of the scientific effort, but supported by much more technical effort.

Mention has already been made of planetary science as a developing area of astronomical research in Britain.  Other new areas of research include astrochemistry, stimulated by millimetre wave observations and organised within its community through the Astrophysical Chemistry Group, jointly sponsored by the RAS and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Another new area is astroparticle physics, which grew from interest in gamma ray astronomy and cosmic rays into the particle physics of neutrino astronomy and the Big Bang.  Lying on the boundary of astronomy and particle physics, the funding of this cross disciplinary subject has been easier because both fields are, in the UK, funded by PPARC.  An astroparticle detector has been operating through the UK Dark Matter Collaboration since 2003 in a deep mine in Boulby in Yorkshire, and the UK has an interest in the Sudbury Neutrino Detector in Canada. 

There is burgeoning interest in Britain in gravitational waves (universities of Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, etc), as the last unexplored waveband region of astronomy.  There is strong theoretical interest and considerable technical expertise.   Britain’s practical participation is focussed on a German-British gravitational wave detector, GEO 600, near Hanover, working in concert with an American detector, LIGO, and is regarded as preparation for Britain’s participation in the ESA-NASA space project LISA, the Laser Interferometric Space Antenna, to detect low-frequency gravitational waves from close binary stars, the Big Bang and black holes.   (Other high-frequency facilities for gravitational wave astronomy will be forgiven if they find nothing, because there may be nothing to find, but if LISA detects nothing there will be trouble.)

There is considerable interest in Britain in solar physics and solar-terrestrial physics, including strong theoretical capability (about 14% of the research activity, according to the RAS-PPARC Demographic Survey).  The community self-organises into two groups, the UK Solar Physics Group and MIST (standing for Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial) both of them holding regular meetings (those of the solar-terrestrial community beguilingly called spring and autumn MIST respectively).  Solar observers use ESA and other satellites (Ulysses, SOHO, Yohkoh, etc) and participate in solar helioseismology networks such as BiSON (Birmingham and Sheffield Hallam universities).  Ground based solar-terrestrial physics facilities include the Co-operative UK Twin Located Auroral Sounding System (CUTLASS), consisting of two high frequency (HF) radars located in Iceland and Finland to measure backscatter from ionospheric irregularities, the European Incoherent Scatter Radar (EISCAT), which is three pulsed incoherent scatter radar systems, used to measure the properties of the upper atmosphere, and several smaller facilities.  That these facilities are part of PPARC’s responsibility and in this article is a consequence of a Government definition that puts the boundary of the subject matter of astronomy at a height of 100 km, much of what happens below being the domain of the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC).

Stellar astronomy has been concentrated on X-ray binary stars, coordinating and modelling X-ray and optical observations made by multi-user, multi-wavelength facilities.  Perhaps these kinds of systems were favoured for study, not only because of the novelty of the discoveries from X-ray astronomy, but also because cataclysmic variable stars could be followed for complete orbits in the small number of nights usually available in time allocation bites.  New scheduling methods like queue scheduling and new technologies have diversified the stellar types studied into, for example, young stellar objects (benefiting from technical advances in IR spectroscopy and imaging on Gemini and UKIRT), extrasolar planets (still in practice stellar astrophysics), large-scale imaging surveys for variability, originally designed to look for machos and now extended to planetary-transit searches (new instruments like SuperWASP, which consists of 8 wide-angle cameras on La Palma that simultaneously monitor the sky for planetary transit events, coming on stream), and studies with the largest telescopes of individual stars in the Local Group (supernova progenitors, eclipsing binaries for the distance scale, evolution of stars in the Galaxy, the Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds).  There is some work on more conventional interpretation of stellar (and solar) spectra. 

The largest part (more than 30%) of the effort in British astronomy is however deployed on galactic and extra-galactic astronomy, in a number of British universities too large to list.  In an article like this, which has attempted to be comprehensive, the subject is often underrepresented, since research areas are mentioned one by one.  The astronomers take a ‘multi-wavelength approach’ in which they deploy telescopes of all kinds on the problems they seek to solve.  Often the projects set up by these astronomers are large-scale, generating prodigious amounts of data and using large quantities of computing power, telescope time, and big instruments, such as 8-metre telescopes and multi-object spectrographs like 2dF (which covers a 2 degree field and has been used to gather redshifts of 250,000 galaxies and 25,000 quasars distributed over 1500 square degrees of the southern hemisphere), or X-ray telescopes on satellites. The focussed nature of British astronomical funding helps make such a concentration of resources possible.   In a project under the name of AstroGrid, the archives of data are made publicly available and the large number of diverse archives is being integrated.  This is part of a Government initiative on e-science coordinated by the National e-Science Centre to develop information technology.  The extragalactic problems tackled are strongly founded in physics and include investigations in the structure and spectra of galaxies, gamma ray bursters, star formation, development of structure in the universe – the whole range of contemporary cosmology, and the most significant part of British astronomy.