Current projects

Here are some of the larger projects I am working on at the moment. Click on the titles or pictures to go to the pages or links with full descriptions.

Finding Life in Outer Space

A film proposed to the Smithsonian Channel to support the Life in the Cosmos initiative.  Many documentaries over the last decade have looked at the exoplanets topic and life in the Universe.  I wanted to look at it more from the perspective of astrophysics, and what are the relevant astrophysical processes that go into the story of the origin and evolution of life? The film proposal was given "mission critical" status, meaning it was viewed as an important aspect of promoting the work of the Smithsonian.  Working with UK production company Brook Lapping and director Pete Chinn, the filming was undertaken during early to mid-2017.  
Originally titled "Life in the Cosmos", Finding Life in Outer Space premiered on the Smithsonian Channel on March 25, 2018.  See the "Recent Research" posting for further description of the film.

The massive Cygnus OB2 Association: a laboratory for star and planet formation

I am principal investigator of a Chandra X-ray Observatory legacy project to survey the the Cygnus OB2 Association and use it as a laboratory for understanding massive star formation, the influence of massive stars on lower mass star and planet formation, and the high energy astrophysics of young stellar objects. The Chandra study is the centrepiece of a panchromatic effort bringing together observations of the association from gamma-rays to radio wavelengths using both ground-based facilities and other space-based observatories such as Spitzer and Herschel.

Life in the Cosmos

Life in the Cosmos is a multi-disciplinary Smithsonian Institution program I am leading to bring together the diversity of Smithsonian scientists to investigate the origin and evolution of life in the Universe. Perhaps the most profound problem in science, the question of how and where life originates and the physical and chemical processes and environment that shapes it encompasses nearly all aspects of contemporary science - from the astrophysics that describes the formation of stars and planets, and the subsequent planetary environment, to the planetary physics, geophysics, geochemistry and geology that probe surface planetary evolution, to the biochemistry, biology and ecology of life itself and the paleobiology that reveals the evolution of life on Earth. Smithsonian scientists study nearly all aspects of this most complex of puzzles.

IPHAS: The INT/WFC Photometric H-alpha Survey of the Northern Galactic Plane

As the name suggests, IPHAS is a survey of the Northern Galactic Plane being carried out in Hα, r and i filters, using the Wide Field Camera (WFC) on the 2.5-metre Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) at the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory (ORM) on La Palma, Tenerife. I am a member of the collaboration, performing supporting and follow-up observations using Smithsonian facilities. IPHAS is designed to provide orders of magnitude improvement in sensitivity over existing Halpha surveys Galactic Plane surveys, conducted with photographic plates over 30 years ago. The survey is designed to find stars in particularly interesting phases of evolution: very young T Tauri stars and clusters of lower-mass stellar objects; Be stars of all type, including young Herbig stars and B[e] supergiants;  interacting binary stars of all types; dMe stars, near-main sequence A stars, M giants and H-rich white dwarfs. IPHAS is lead by Prof. Janet Drew of the University of Hertfordshire, UK. 

High-energy stellar physics

Much of my research is centred on high energy processes in stellar physics. The scope of this field is vast, including studying and trying to understand the physical processes at work that heat the coronae of stars like the Sun to millions of degrees, probing their mass loss through winds and coronal mass ejections and related rotational and angular momentum evolution, observing and understanding their high energy electromagnetic (UV-X-ray) and particle (energetic protons, electrons and other nuclei) radiation, examining the effects of this high-energy emission on the protoplanetary disks of young, million year old stars and on the planets of more mature systems, and using high-energy signatures of young stars to study star and planet formation.

The Swift Nova Project

I am a member of the Swift Nova group, using the flexible, rapid response X-ray capability of the Swift gamma-ray burst mission to probe nova explosions and their subsequent evolution. The Swift X-ray Telescope has detected fairly hard, and still not entirely explained, X-ray emission in the first few days of some novae.  It has also followed the development of the X-ray emitting shock structure seen in symbiotic novae (see, e.g., the posting on V407 Cygni), and the development of the softer thermal X-rays that characterise the later supersoft source phase (see, e.g., the development of eclipses on U Scorpii).

The Chandra X-ray Observatory

I am an instrument scientist working on the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  Launched on1999 July 23 on space shuttle Columbia as mission STS-93, and subsequently boosted into a high elliptical orbit, Chandra is NASA's flagship mission for X-ray astronomy and is operated by the Chandra X-ray Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. It is a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the Universe, such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, matter around black holes, and the tenuous outer atmospheres of stars like the Sun.  Chandra's mirrors - four nested shells - are the most precise focussing X-ray optics ever built for astronomical purposes.  Chandra carries four focal plane detectors and two transmission grating spectrometers. See the Proposer's Observatory Guide for full technical details.