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High Energy Group Research

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The high-energy astrophysics group at Monash University carries out observational and theoretical research into the most violent and energetic processes and objects in our universe. Our astrophysical research targets include supernova remnants and neutron stars; accretion- and rotation-powered pulsars; cosmic rays; and both stellar-mass and supermassive  black  holes.  We perform numerical simulations using multi-dimensional codes on supercomputer facilities, and make use of international high-energy observatories including the XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL satellites (ESA), and NuSTAR and Chandra (NASA).  

We are also active members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the OzGRav ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, and carry out research on searches for gravitational waves and their electromagnetic counterparts (see the Gravitational Waves group page for more details). Members of the group are active in the Gravitational-wave Optical Transient Observer (GOTO) telescope project, which is developing robotic hardware to identify optical counterparts of binary mergers.

The group consists of staff members, postdoctoral  researchers  and  students,  from the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Mathematical Sciences.

We welcome intelligent and highly motivated students to study astrophysics for their PhD or as a component of their honours year. Details of project opportunities can be obtained from individuals listed below. More details of the course structure and the many benefits of an honours or PhD degree can  be  found  on  the School of Physics and Astronomy home pages.

Personnel

  • Alexander Heger (Professor, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Alina Donea (Senior Lecturer, School of Mathematical Sciences)
  • Duncan Galloway (Senior Lecturer, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway (Lecturer, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Eric Thrane (Senior Lecturer, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Paul Lasky (ARC Future Fellow and Lecturer, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Bernhard Müller (ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Yuri Levin (Adjunct professor)
  • Tyrone Woods (Postdoctoral associate, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Letizia Sammut (Postdoctoral associate, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Evert Rol (Postdoctoral associate, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Kendall Ackley (Postdoctoral associate, School of Physics & Astronomy)
  • Daniel Reardon (PhD student)
  • Zac Johnston (PhD student)
  • Ashley Bransgrove (Masters student)
  • Adelle Goodwin (Honours student)

[ High Energy Group Publications ]

Future events

  • High-energy group meetings, Thursday at 11am, room 110, building 19 (contact Lucy McNeill if you would like to attend or be added to the mailing list)

Past events


Thermonuclear burning on neutron stars

Researchers: Heger, Galloway, Johnston, Goodwin

Thermonuclear (type I) X-ray bursts occur in close binary star systems in which one ofthe components is a neutron star, the remnant of a supernova explosionfrom a massive star, and the other star usually is a low-masscompanion. When a sufficiently large layer of material has accretedon the surface  of  the  neutron  star, a thermonuclear runaway may occurthat results in the observable burst in X-rays. At that time thelayer is about 10 m thick, residing on top of a 10 km radius neutronstar — the height of a house on top of an object the size of a city!The bursts only last  seconds  to  minutes  and recur on time scales ofhours to days.

Whereas the timescales above seem very close to those of everyday life, thesebursts yet are among the most exotic and lest well understoodphenomena in astrophysics. The thermonuclear burning during the burstinvolves tens of thousands of nuclear reactions on thousands ofindividual isotopes. Many  of  the  key  reaction rates are poorlyknown as they involve highly unstable nuclei and can be measured in terrestrial laboratories onlywith extreme difficulty. Research atMonash includes numerical models of these burst to predict burstrecurrence times, lightcurves, and energies for comparison withour  extensive  observational  datasets.  Research priorities includedetermining ignition conditions for observed burst sources;understanding so-far unexplained burst phenomena, such as double andtriple bursts, and constraining the rates of individual thermonuclearreactions from astrophysical observations.


Gravitational Waves

Researchers: Levin, Lasky, Galloway, Thrane, Sammut, Rol, Ackley

Gravitational waves (GWs) are propagating ripples in the fabric of space-time, and are generated in highly energetic astrophysical events that involve rapid bulk motions of massive bodies, e.g. black holes.  Once  generated,  the  GWs propagate throughout the Universe without absorption, and carry detailed information about the general-relativistic astrophysical processes that produced them. Gravitational wave astronomy became a reality in 2016 with the spectacular detection of the merger of a pair of black holes each ~30 times the mass of our sun. At Monash, researchers are involved in two distinct efforts  in this field;  the  first,  using Galactic millisecond pulsars as a "timing array" sensitive to very low frequency signals, such as those which might be produced by the motions of super-massive black holes (see e.g. the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array and the European Pulsar Timing Array projects); and the second, interferometric instruments (such as the Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory,  or  LIGO  in  the US) sensitive to much more rapid motions originating from merging or rapidly rotating neutron stars. Activities involve development and testing of data algorithms for pulsar timing array data analysis; characterisation of noise sources for interferometric detectors; and optical  and  X-ray  observations  to detect optical counterparts and improve the sensitivity of future GW searches from neutron stars. See the dedicated Gravitational Waves group page for more details

These plots show the strain in the detector, which indicates that a gravitational wave from colliding black holes was detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017. These plots show the strain in the Hanford and Livingstone detectors, which indicates that a gravitational wave from colliding black holes was detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017.
Image credit: LIGO Laboratory

Neutron Star Binaries

Researchers: Galloway, Johnston, Goodwin

The stellar remnants of supernova explosions consist of matter under extreme conditions of temperature, density and magnetic field. Neutronstars in binary systems appear as bright X-ray sources to space-based observatories, thanks to gas donated from the stellar companion and heatedto tens of millions  of  degrees  in  the process. These objects exhibit thermonuclear bursts, in which the accreted fuel is ignited and burns in abright flash of X-rays once every few hours, and a few exhibit pulsations at hundreds of cycles per second, which allows measurement of theirextremely rapid spin rates.  Research  priorities  include  the detailed burst properties and underlying thermonuclear reactions; searches for, andcharacterisation of, new transient pulsing systems; measurements of the mass and radius so as to constrain the interior composition; and optical measurements to improve system  parameters and  hence  boost  sensitivity of current and future gravitational wave searches.

artist's impression of a spinning neutron star Artist's impression of a spinning neutron star
Image credit: NASA/Dana Barry

Supernova remnants

Researchers: Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway

A supernova explosion marks the endpoint of a massive star evolution, resulting in an expandingshell, the supernova remnant (SNR), consisting of a blast wave accompanied by slower moving stellarejecta. Thus, SNRs are often observed as whole or partial shells of optical, X-ray and radioemission. The  input  of  energy  and nuclear fusion products into the interstellar medium make SNRs,dynamically and chemically, one of the most important objects in galaxies. The research here atMonash involves:

  • the general physical properties of SNRs, using mainly X-ray and radio observations - as telescopes at different wavelengths continue to improve in sensitivity and spatial resolution, we are able to study SNRs in more detail, rather than their spatially averaged properties;
  • a special class of "mixed-morphology" remnants - an intriguing class of SNRs that show different morphology in X-ray and radio band, and, more importantly, different X-ray properties than expected from standard SNR theory;
  • using high-resolution X-ray imaging and spectroscopy for SNR studies - instruments in X-ray band are approaching optical, IR, and UV bands in their ability to measure precise kinematics and add a third dimension to the data;
  • studying particle acceleration in SNRs using non-thermal X-ray emission and TeV Gamma-ray emission in attempt to solve the question about the origin of low-energy cosmic rays;
  • studying the interaction of SNRs with dense molecular clouds using X-ray, millimetre and infrared observations - the shocks driven by SNRs into dense molecular clouds compress, accelerate and heat the gas, exciting higher molecular transitions and activating chemical reactions forbidden in  cold    molecular    clouds;
Radio and X-ray images of supernova remnant MSH 61-11A.
ASCA satellite image

Overlay of radio data (contours) from the MOST telescope and X-ray data (colour image) from the ASCA satellite.

Chandra satellite image

Overlay of the same radio data (contours) and X-ray data (colour image) from the Chandra satellite.


Cosmic Rays

Researchers: Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway

Cosmic rays are the most energetuc particles known, and have been blamed for many things from the extinction of the dinosaurs to climate change, but astronomers are still not sure where they come from.

Cosmic rays are high-energy protons, ions and electrons; ordinary matter which has undergone some extraordinary process to gain huge energies. Since cosmic rays are electrically charged, their trajectories are deflected as they travel through the large-scale Galactic magnetic field. Unlike photons,  the  origin of cosmic rays cannot be deduced from their arrival direction.

The most energetic cosmic rays (E~1020eV) are believed to come from the active centres of distant galaxies. The more-prevalent lower-energy (E~1015eV) cosmic rays are believed to be particles accelerated in the expanding shockwaves of supernova remnants (SNRs). Testing this hypothesis has turned out to be more challenging  than  first thought when cosmic rays were discovered about a century ago. The major evidence comes from observation of synchrotron emission in both radio and X-ray bands, as well as gamma-ray emission - but this is only detected in a handful of SNRs. In addition, other sources (such as pulsar wind nebulae,  binary  stars and star-forming regions) have been shown to emit gamma rays, as have 'dark accelerators' which display no corresponding X-ray or radio emission.

It appears that the field of particle acceleration and cosmic-ray studies has just begun to scratch the surface of possibilities. Much further work is needed in both theory and observations in order to solve the mystery of cosmic rays.

A number of projects in this field are available to Honours and PhD students, involving observations in radio, millimetre, X-ray and TeV bands, as well as some theoretical work in topics such as broadband emission modelling.

Synchrotron X-ray emission from Chandra matches well with radio emission from ATCA

Synchrotron X-ray emission from Chandra (colour image) matches well with radio emission from ATCA (white contours). Image credit: Lazendic et al. 2004, ApJ, 602, 271

SNR G347.3-0.5 from XMM and Chandra

X-ray images of TeV-emitting SNR G347.3-0.5 from XMM (large image) and Chandra (smaller inset). Image credits: NASA/CXC/SAO/P. Sloan et al; ESA/RIKEN/J. Hiraga et al.


Nuclear activity in active galaxies

Researchers: Donea, Hanson

In the real universe, black holes may not necessarily be isolated - they often come in pairs. In sucha pair, the two black holes orbit around each other and gradually spiral inward until they eventuallymerge to form a single black hole. Physicists and astrophysicists have struggled to understand thismerging  phenomenon  since  the  1960's, but understanding the dynamical spacetime of two merging black holesand their environment has proved much more difficult than understanding the stationary spacetime of asingle isolated black hole. The unification scheme for active galactic nuclei populates their  core  witha  supermassive  black hole, an accretion disk feeding the monster, two bipolar relativistic jets, a dustytorus obscuring the black hole and many broad line emitting clouds. We then ask: What is the structureof the inner part of an active galaxy when  TWO black holes devour  its content?  What  can we learn from Tera electronvolt gamma ray observations about feeding of the monsters, what are the emitting signaturesfrom these, how do we observe it, and what shall we predict for future telescopes with unprecedentedresolution? We collaborate with  the German team from  Landessternwarte  Heidelberg,  Germany on theexperiment H.E.S.S.II (The High Energy Stereoscopic System), which will allow gamma-ray observationsdown to 20 GeV in galaxies. Heidelberg is one of the main astrophysics centres in Germany with fiveinstitutes involved in most  fields of astrophysics  and  particle-astrophysics.

Simple geometry of a binary black hole model. The direction of the radio jet and observer defines the z-axis. The primary black hole (BH1) is located at z=0. The position of the secondary black hole (BH2) is given byphi_0 and d_0. The star shows the VHE gamma-ray source located at a distance z_0 from themain black hole. The gamma-rays emitted along the jet can interact with soft photons from bothaccretion disks. A simplified BBH model assumes that the primary accretion disk is much more extendedthan the second disk (the disruption effects in the BBH system may cause the external disk of BBH2 to beunstable).