High-Energy Astrophysics Group

The High-Energy Astrophysics Group (HEAG) is at the forefront of research into the most energetic processes in the universe.

Pierre Auger Observatory

Pierre Auger Observatory image courtesy Steven Saffi

We study astrophysics through observations of neutrinos, very-high-energy gamma-rays and ultra-energetic cosmic rays, with associated work in the optical, radio, and x-ray regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Members of the group are involved in a number of large-scale international collaborations, including:

Students within HEAG undertake study in areas that are associated directly with these projects, and also in other energy regimes - such as radio - which complement the work done at these major facilities.

 

Research fields

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  • Cosmic-ray astronomy

    What are cosmic rays?

    Representation of cosmic ray shower

    Pictorial representation of a cosmic ray shower of the Auger Observatory triggering its ground detectors.

    Cosmic rays are protons and other atomic nuclei possessing enormous energies. The rarest have energies almost 100 million times greater than protons accelerated by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and represent the most energetic particles known in the Universe.

    Astrophysicists have been striving to understand how and where Nature accelerates these particles to such extreme energies, and how they fit with the broader astrophysical picture.

    The giant Pierre Auger Observatory, covering 3000 square kilometres in western Argentina, has made great strides towards solving these long-standing and important astrophysical problems.


    How do we detect cosmic rays?

    Auger ground tank

    An Auger ground tank for detecting cosmic ray showers. In the background is a nitrogen fluorescence detector station.

    Extremely energetic cosmic rays initiate enormous cascades of secondary particles when they strike the Earth's atmosphere. Such an air shower can cover tens of square kilometres at ground level, and during its passage through the atmosphere the shower induces a flash of bluish fluorescence light.

    The Pierre Auger Observatory observes the showers in two complementary ways to extract information on the nature of the incoming cosmic rays, including their energy, arrival direction and mass.

    An array of 1660 particle detectors spread over 3000 square kilometres measures the shower particles as they strike Earth, while a series of 27 large optical telescopes measures the flashes of light from atmospheric nitrogen excited by the shower.

    Cascade of particles in an air shower

    The cascade of particles in an air shower, looking down along its path towards the ground.

    Since full operations began in 2008, the Pierre Auger Observatory has exploited the sensitivity and size of the Observatory to publish many studies on the characteristics of the high-energy cosmic ray flux, including a high-statistics measurement of the suppression of the flux at the highest energies, strong limits on the photon and neutrino content, intriguing indications of large- and small-scale clustering of arrival directions, and an interpretation of air shower measurements indicating an increase in the average mass of the cosmic ray particles at the highest energies.

    At the same time, high-energy particle interactions have been studied at energies inaccessible to man-made particle accelerators. A major upgrade of the Observatory commenced in 2016 to enhance the sensitivity of the surface array detectors to the mass of the cosmic ray particles.


    What we do at HEAG

    The University of Adelaide hosts one of the largest groups in the Auger collaboration. Adelaide was a founding member of the collaboration, and hosted its first design workshop in 1993. Members of the Adelaide group now hold key positions in the collaboration, including leadership roles in the mass composition and analysis foundations tasks, and in the Upgrade Task Force.

    Staff and students undertake tasks including development of hardware and software to assist with data analysis and infra-red monitoring of clouds, as well as taking part in observing runs and interpretation of results.

    Historically, the group operated a cosmic-ray detection array at the department's Buckland Park field station, for several decades from the 1970's onwards.

    Discover how the detector works

    Key contact: Professor Bruce Dawson

  • Gamma-ray astronomy

    What are gamma rays?

    Gamma-ray astronomy uses various techniques to observe, either directly or indirectly, photons that have energies above approximately 1.2 x 10eV (about 2 x 10-14 Joule). This corresponds to a wavelength of around 10-11m and a frequency around 3 x 1019 Hz.

    Compare this with green visible light, which has a wavelength around 500 x 10-9m, a frequency of 6 x 1014 Hz, and energy around 2.5 eV or 4 x 10-19 J. That is, a gamma-ray photon carries at least 50,000 more energy than the light you see with your eyes...

    Thus, gamma-rays are much more energetic than visible-light photons, and the physical processes that are required to produce such high-energy photons are themselves correspondingly more energetic. This provides constraints on the type of processes that are capable of producing gamma-rays, and so detecting and studying gamma-rays from sources gives us another window onto the nature of these sources.


    How do we detect them?

    Incoming gamma-ray photone and Cerenkov light pool

    An incoming gamma-ray photon (red), and the associated Cerenkov light pool (blue). The Cerenkov light is detected by specialised ground-based telescopes.

    Gamma-rays can be observed via ground-based and space-based detectors.

    Satellite-borne detectors can detect gamma-rays directly; for example, the BATSE satellite incorporated counters which measured directly the interaction between gamma-rays and the material in the detectors. Thus, the gamma-ray itself was measured by those detectors.

    Ground-based detectors use indirect methods, such as the atmospheric Cerenkov air shower method. Here, when the gamma-ray enters Earth's atmosphere, it is travelling faster than the speed of light in air, and emits Cerenkov radiation.

    In essence, this consists of visible or near-visible photons, and we look for these Cerenkov photons. Thus, we do not observe the gamma-ray directly, but the results of its interaction with the Earth's atmosphere.


    What we do at HEAG

    MAGIC telescope undergoing callibration

    The MAGIC telescope on La Palma undergoing calibration. MAGIC is not used by HEAG members but this image illustrates the optical layout of such telescopes.

    Staff and students in HEAG utilise both space-based and ground-based techniques. We have a major collaboration with the HESS gamma-ray telescope system in Namibia.

    We are also involved with planning and development of the Cerenkov Telescope Array.

    Our research is directed at determining the observational characteristics of the sources of the gamma-rays, and elucidating the physical process that produce such high-energy photons.

    In particular for galactic gamma-ray sources within our own Milky Way galaxy, those gamma-rays can arise from the interaction between cosmic ray particles and the various components of our galaxy's interstellar medium (such as gas clouds), so a major effort is the examination of that interaction.

    Thus, we also undertake research at other wavelengths, particularly in the radio and sub-millimetre regimes, and also examining the nature of the galactic magnetic field.

  • Neutrino astronomy

    What are neutrinos?

    IceCube PMT module

    One of the IceCube PMT modules. The PMT itself is the copper-hued hemisphere in the lower section.

    A neutrino is a subatomic particle with no electrical charge and almost (but not quite) no mass. Its properties make it difficult to detect, but it is a very important particle, at least in part because there are so many of them.

    For example, neutrinos can carry away vast amounts of energy from a supernova explosion. Thus, a full understanding of the mechanics of supernovae can come about only with a good knowledge of the processes that take place during these events, and experimental conformation of expected results - such as a neutrino burst preceding detection in optical or other wavelengths, as was seen with supernova SN1987A.

    Neutrinos are produced in a range of astrophysical environments, so an experimental understanding of them, in spite of the great difficulty in their detection, provides us with another important insight into astrophysical and nuclear processes.


    How do we detect neutrinos?

    With difficulty.

    Track in array data

    An example of a track in the array data. Black dots are PMT modules. The coloured circles represent individually-triggered PMT modules, with the lines showing the reconstructed neutrino path.

    The properties of neutrinos greatly limit their interaction with ordinary matter, so we must look at detection strategies which enable us to observe their very rare interactions with matter.

    Whilst the initial detection of neutrinos was undertaken with laboratory-scale equipment, experiments to detect astrophysical neutrinos are much larger. Some involve large volumes of water, and they usually are located underground in order to shield the system from other naturally-occurring particles; the neutrino flux essentially is not affected by passing through substantial amounts of rock, but the background from other particles is greatly reduced.

    Also, we do not look to detect the neutrino itself; rather, we are looking for some signature of the interaction of a neutrino with matter, and use the detection of such interaction products as an indication that a neutrino was present.

    In the IceCube experiment, light-sensitive photo-multiplier tubes (PMTs) are buried deep within Antarctic ice. When a neutrino interacts with a neutron or a proton within H or O atoms in the ice, that interaction can release secondary particles which are travelling faster than the speed of light in ice (similar in principle to the air Cerenkov technique used for gamma-ray telescopes); as a result, Cerenkov light is emitted. The PMTs detect these flashes of Cerenkov light.

    Over 5,000 PMT-based detectors are buried in the ice at depths between 1,450-to-2,450 metres below the surface. Analysis of event data from the PMT array can lead to information about the direction of arrival of the neutrino, and also help to determine whether the neutrino was from an astrophysical source or was produced in the earth's atmosphere by other processes.


    What we do at HEAG

    HEAG members are involved in analysis and interpretation of data from IceCube, particularly with regard to the question of whether or not the distribution of neutrino sources truly is isotropic (i.e., uniform across the sky), and if we are able to correlate neutrino sources with other objects, e.g. gamma-ray sources.

    Also, staff have contributed to the installation of the detector array, and are involved in the planning and administration of the collaboration.

    How does the ICECUBE work?

    Key contact: Associate Professor Gary Hill

  • Radio astronomy

    What is radio astronomy?

    Radio waves cover the broad range of frequencies from around 3 kilohertz to about 300 gigahertz. Radio astronomy uses various portions of this frequency range. The types of objects that can be explored in this regime range from planets and their immediate environments (for example, Jupiter is a source of radio emission), ordinary stars such as our Sun, peculiar stars such as pulsars, extreme locations such as the areas around black holes, interstellar gas in galaxies, and through to intergalactic space.

    The radio spectrum was perhaps the second main spectral domain available to astronomers, after optical methods. Astronomical sources of radio waves were first found in the 1930's, and in the following years, many types of radio emission were discovered- solar, planetary, stellar, galactic.

    With the development of instrumentation and techniques in the radio regime, the era of multi-wavelength astronomy began. It was realised that a much clearer understanding of the nature of astronomical sources could be found when our data cover a range of different wavelengths, since we then explore different aspects of these sources.


    How do we observe radio sources?

    Mopra radio telescope

    The Mopra radio telescope in NSW, used by HEAG for surveys of interstellar gas in our galaxy.

    Radio telescopes can produce maps of radio emission on the sky, and if these maps are produced with sufficient resolution, we essentially obtain images of sources at radio wavelengths. Further, if data from widely separated telescopes are combined (known as interferometry), the resolution obtained is equivalent to that of a telescope with a diameter equal to the separation of those telescopes- and this could be thousands of kilometres. This idea can be extended to combining telescopes on Earth with some in space, or space-borne arrays for very large separations.

    This method allows us to produce the highest resolution obtainable in images at any wavelength. Also, radio observations can be done with very high time resolution- for example, observations of pulsars with rotational periods measured in milliseconds.

    Antenna elements of Murchison Wide-Field Array

    Antenna elements of the Murchison Wide-Field Array (MWA). Former HEAG student Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt  is involved at senior levels with SKA and MWA.

    Since people were using radio for communications since the 1890's, the basic technology for detecting (and generating) radio waves had been known for some decades prior to the discovery of astronomical sources of radio waves.

    Radio telescopes vary in form from simple antennae (possibly even just fixed wires), through to larger fixed arrays -such as the early Mills Cross in the early days of Australian radiophysics - to the classical steerable radio dish, exemplified by the Parkes radio telescope.

    Recent developments include the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and its predecessor instruments, which utilise arrays of fixed antennae, with sophisticated data-processing and analysis routines to allow simultaneous multi-directional and multi-frequency observations.


    What we do in HEAG

    Example of positional alignment

    An example of positional alignment between gamma-ray intensity (blue contours) and interstellar medium (gas) emission (colour scale).

    Staff and students utilise radio data at millimetre and sub-millimetre wavelengths to complement and support observations in gamma-rays.

    Within our galaxy, gamma-ray photons can arise from the interaction of cosmic ray particles with the interstellar medium (ISM) in our galaxy, and thus these radio observations help us to determine more clearly the production of these gamma-rays by mapping and

    probing the structure of the ISM.

    Also, these radio observations are undertaken in part to look for spatial co-incidence between the radio and the gamma-ray sources, since a considerable fraction of our galactic gamma-ray sources are of an unidentified nature. Multi-wavelength observations can help to elucidate the nature of these unidentified sources.

    Most observations are undertaken with the Mopra and NANTEN2 facilities.

    Key contact: Associate Professor Gavin Rowell

    Key collaborations
  • Gravitational wave astronomy

    Gravitational wave astronomy is a revolutionary new area of astronomy and astrophysics. These waves provide information about the evolution of the universe which was previously not available through electromagnetic radiation or particle-based observations. Gravitational waves provide a new way of sensing the universe and observing its early history.

    Our group was an active contributor to the first successful detection of gravitational waves in 2015. This detection observed stellar mass black hole binaries for the first time and provided the most extreme tests of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. In 2017 the collision of two neutron stars was observed for the first time and the resulting waveforms gave insight into the structure of the most extreme nuclear matter in the universe.

    The group is currently developing new ‘adaptive optics’ systems with advanced optical diagnostics. These systems will enable the laser beams used in the LIGO and Virgo detectors to be constantly monitored and adjusted during use, which will significantly increase detection rates and fidelity.

    The next step will be a range of next-generation detectors. The group is also exploring technology that will use silicon mirrors cooled to about minus 150ºC. This may allow detectors to routinely observe gravitational waves from coalescing black holes and neutron stars, and search the universe for previously undetectable new sources.

    The Adelaide Group is a node of the OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence.


    Key contacts
  • Optical astronomy

    What is optical astronomy?

    low-resolution spectral image of Eta Carinae

    A low-resolution spectral image of Eta Carinae. Wavelength increases from left to right. The bright dots are emission lines in the star's spectrum.

    This branch of astronomy utilises the optical wavelengths, which range from about 300 nanometres (nm, 10-9 metres) to 1000nm. It is the oldest observing regime in astronomy, since the original detector used for observations was the human eye.

    Generally, the eye is sensitive from about 400nm to 700nm or so, but with the addition of detector hardware such as photographic emulsions, photo-multiplier tubes and solid-state detectors such as CCD cameras, the range has been extended to include some of the near ultra-violet and the near infra-red.

    This range of wavelengths is one to which the Earth's atmosphere is transparent, so ground-based telescopes can cover the full range of these wavelengths.

    How do we make observations?

    Phase plot of eclipsing cataclysmic binary system V895

    A phase plot of the eclipsing cataclysmic binary system V895 Cen. Data from 1996-2008, including one night in 2005 when the system was in an unusually bright state; this system shows significant changes in behaviour over time.

    As the technology available to optical astronomers has advanced over the centuries, we now have three main data-gathering methods:

    • Imaging, where we want to see what an object or part of the sky looks like;
    • Photometry, where we want to measure the brightness of an object; and
    • Spectroscopy, where we study the elemental composition of objects; and other parameters such as their motion relative to the Earth.

    An optical telescope is used both to form a detailed image of an astronomical object and also, very importantly, to collect more light (i.e. more photons) from that source. This second point means that we can make more accurate measurements of that light, and thus determine the properties of that source more accurately and precisely.

    A detector (most commonly an electronic detector such as a CCD camera) is placed near the telescope focus and may be preceded by a spectrograph (for spectroscopic observations) or a filter (in order to restrict the observations to a particular smaller range of wavelengths).

    Whilst the majority of observations are done from the Earth's surface, space-based facilities such as Hubble and Kepler take advantage of being above the Earth's atmosphere, obtaining data that can not be obtained from the ground.


    What we do in HEAG

    Our optical astronomy research is in the areas of cataclysmic variable star photometry, transiting exoplanet photometry, and, most recently, spectroscopy of emission-line and Wolf-Rayet stars. Observations are undertaken in the University of Adelaide Optical Observatory, which is on the North Terrace campus.

    As this is a small facility operated solely by HEAG, there are no restrictions on availability, and we can dedicate the system to whatever observing programs we wish. These observing programs can be part of international campaigns for observing or monitoring particular sources, such as exoplanet host stars, emission-line stars, or gamma-ray counterparts.

    Key contact: Dr Padric McGee

  • Muon Detector

    The University of Adelaide operates a one-square-metre muon detector on the Adelaide Campus, which records the number of detected cosmic ray muons every 15 minutes.

    muon detector

    A Muon Detector, with the light-tight box on the left and the computer and high-voltage power supply on the right.

    The detector was originally designed to provide data for undergraduate teaching purposes including student project work. There is a larger system 40 km north of Adelaide at Buckland Park. This is made up of eight one-square-metre scintillator muon detectors, with four detectors being in the form of a square above the other four detectors.

    Using the two vertically-displaced detector planes, and by taking coincidences between vertically-placed detectors, or diagonally spaced detectors, nine directional 'beams' can be made and we measure the muon rate for each of those. In addition, we record the total count rates, the second-by-second total rate, and the rates of small cosmic ray showers which trigger more than two detectors 'in coincidence'.

    The Adelaide and Buckland Park systems make up HEAMS (the High-Energy Astrophysics Muon System).

    More about the Muon Detector

  • University of Adelaide Optical Observatory

    University of Adelaide Observatory

    HEAG operates an observatory on the University's North Terrace campus. Despite its thoroughly urban location in the city, and the presence of considerable light pollution in its vicinity, it is capable of useful scientific data on appropriate targets. It also is used to give students exposure to, and experience in, observational techniques and data analysis and interpretation in the area of optical astrophysics.

    Previously, most of the research undertaken here has involved CCD photometry of exoplanet host stars, and of cataclysmic variable stars. With the arrival of of the Protheroe spectrograph (named for former HEAG academic Prof. Ray Protheroe) in June 2018, spectroscopy has became the main field of teaching and research. This work involves taking part in international campaigns on the monitoring of the behaviour of particular spectral features in objects such as eta Carinae and some southern emission-line Be stars.

    Key contact: Dr Padric McGee

     

    Equipment

    • Optics: Celestron C14 f/11, 0.35-metre diameter, nominal focal length 391.16 cm; Orion 80mm f/5 refractor and Starshoot autoguider
    • Mount: Meade LX-200, circa 2003
    • Cameras: SBIG ST-9XE CCD, 512 x 512 pixels, 20-micron pixels, for photometry and imaging; ZWO ASI 120MM camera.
    • Filters: SBIG CFW8A with clear, B, V, R, I filters; Baader solar continuum filter (10nm bandpass at 540nm) for direct solar imaging.
    • Other: Shelyak LHIRES III spectrograph with 150/600/1200/1800/2400 l/mm gratings and ZWO 178MM-C camera for slit monitoring and QHY22 camera for spectrum acquisition; Rainbow Optics 200 line/mm transmission diffraction grating.

     

    Recent Observations

    2019 October 24th : low-resolution spectroscopy of the symbiotic variable star V694 Monocerotis, detailing the hydrogen-beta and nearby Fe lines (4500-5500 Ångstroms). This was in support of Hubble Space Telescope observations of the star during the period UT 2019 Oct. 23 14:50-18:55. 

    Continuing : high-resolution spectra of eta Carinae will continue to be taken leading up to, during, and past the February 2020 periastron event. These will focus on the HeI 5876Å, hydrogen-delta 4101Å, and NeIII 3686Å regions.

     

    History of the Observatory


Our people

For enquiries regarding postgraduate study, please contact the relevant staff member relevant to the area of interest.

Associate Professor Gavin Rowell

Gamma-rays, interstellar medium


Research staff
Name Research area Students and projects
Dr Jose Bellido Caceres Cosmic rays/Auger  
Dr Sabrina Einecke Gamma-rays/CTA Research students
Dr Paddy McGee Optical  
Dr Andrew Smith Software development  

Visiting research fellows  
Name Research area
Dr Gail Higginbottom Archaeoastronomy
Dr Greg Thornton Gamma rays
Neville Wild Technical Officer, Electronics

 

 Current MPhil and PhD students
Name Topic Supervisor/s Degree
Justin Albury Extending the range of the cosmic-ray fluorescence detectors at the Pierre Auger Observatory Bellido Caceres/Dawson PhD
Rebecca Blackwell ISM/gamma-ray studies of the Galactic Centre Rowell PhD
Tiffany Collins PeVatrons and CTA Rowell/Einecke PhD
Matthew Cooper Night-time cloud detection at the Auger Observatory using infra-red observations Dawson/Clay PhD
Jarryd Day Characteristics of the atmosphere above the Pierre Auger Observatory Dawson/Clay PhD
Phoebe deWilt Dense ISM gas studies towards unidentified TeV gamma-ray sources Rowell PhD
Kirsty Feijen Origin of galactic TeV gamma ray sources Rowell/Einecke PhD
Trent Grubb Installation of new IR cameras at the Auger Observatory for cloud detection Dawson/Clay PhD
Tom Harrison Mass composition measurements using the Auger Observatory HEAT telescopes Dawson/Clay/Bellido Caceres PhD
Violet Harvey Cosmic ray studies with the upgraded Pierre Auger Observatory Dawson/Bellido Caceres PhD
Jarryd Hawkes ISM studies of magnetars and outflow sources Rowell PhD
Simon Lee Simulations for CTA telescope studies Rowell/Einecke PhD
Brad Manning The AugerPrime upgrade and mass composition of UHECR Dawson/Bellido MPhil
Peter Marinos High-Energy Gamma-Ray and Cosmic-Ray Astronomy Rowell/Einecke PhD
Steven Saffi Multivariate analysis of mass composition using Auger Observatory hybrid data Dawson/Bellido Caceres PhD
Cameron Snoswell ISM studies of TeV sources Rowell MPhil
Tristan Sudholz Hardware and analysis aspects of extended operations of Auger fluorescence detectors Dawson/Clay PhD

MPhil (coursework/research) students
Name Topic Supervisor/s Degree
Rami al Sulami H-alpha studies of HESS sources Rowell MPhil (coursework)
Ryan Burley Searching for neutrino sources in the IceCube sky Hill MPhil (coursework)
Erin Carnie-Bronca Neutrinos from primordial black holes Hill/Dawson MPhil (coursework)
Andrew Curzons Modelling the gamma-ray/particle emission from the TeV-gamma-ray source SNR RXJ1737.7-3946 Rowell MPhil (coursework)

2019 Honours students
Name Supervisor/s
Ella Roberts Hill
Coen Roe-Simons Dawson/Clay
Gabriel Rus Rowell/Einecke