Astronomers study solar systems very similar to ours. Photo: University of Warwick

A day in the life of an astronomer

If sci-fi has taught us anything, it’s that physicists are enigmatic, white-coat types. They spend their days in laboratories, possibly in a warren of some kind far beneath the Earth’s crust, relaying their exciting discoveries back to the surface to be announced on the evening news. But after three years in Warwick’s Physics department, I’d begun to wonder whether this picture was entirely accurate. So I sat down with three academics from Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group to find out what really goes on behind the scenes.

I started by asking Dr Danny Steeghs what an observational astronomer does day-to-day.

“There are a few really impressive facilities that every astronomer wants to use. So you have to come up with a good idea and explain it well enough to persuade a panel of scientists that, from the sea of proposals, it’s yours that should get time on a telescope. Then with Hubble, for example, the time you get is counted in hours. So every second is used to collect data. Analysis of that data is very complicated so will keep you busy at a computer for months.”

“We also apply for research funding for the University,” said Professor Boris Gänsicke, who was recently awarded a £1.6million grant by the European Research Council to employ three researchers for the next five years, as well as three PhD students.

“This grant is awesome,” he added, smiling. “There’s so much happening in astronomy at the moment and the extra brains will enable us to analyse all the data we have available.”
So what areas of research does the group focus on? And why?

Dr Elizabeth Stanway explained, “I work on very distant galaxies whose light has spent 12 billion years travelling through the universe to reach us. I use some of the largest telescopes in the world – those with 8-10m mirrors – to detect the light emitted by very young stars. We study the evolution of stars because to understand galaxies like the Milky Way, we need to understand the building blocks and processes that made them.”

And at the opposite end of the stellar lifecycle, Professor Gänsicke studies white dwarfs, burned out cores of stars like the sun.

“We know that there are many solar-like stars with planetary systems that look similar to ours. We also know there are a very large number of white dwarfs and there is no reason to believe that they didn’t once have planets orbiting them. That becomes fascinating because it means that by observing white dwarfs and searching for signs of planetary systems, we get a glimpse into the future of our own solar system.”

Among the group’s most notable observations are the fastest orbiting binary star system, with an orbital period of just 5.4 minutes, and the most distant gamma ray burst, at a distance of 13.11 light-years, ever observed.

“We’re also currently building equipment that will form part of an observatory on a mountain top in Chile,” added Dr Steeghs. “It’s a small telescope that looks at as much of the sky at once as possible to try and spot planets as they cross in front of their stars.”

On the surface, astronomy sounds very glamorous, but it involves a lot of data crunching. Are the hours of analysis worth it in the end?

“It’s not for everyone,” admitted Dr Stanway. “But understanding the universe is part of understanding where we fit into it. And it’s difficult to describe how much the moments of realisation and discovery, and knowing that you’re adding to our understanding of the universe we live in, make the degree of rigour and sometimes tedium on a day-to-day level, worthwhile.”

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