Keele astrophysicists to pinpoint when and where stars and planets were born

The Keele University Astrophysics Group has been awarded a £435,000 grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to explore the formation and fundamental properties of stars and (exo)planetary systems.

The grant, co-ordinated by Professor Coel Hellier, will directly support the research programmes of Professor Rob Jeffries, along with a post-doctoral research associate, and Dr Pierre Maxted.

Professor Jeffries will be combining data from the "Gaia-ESO" stellar spectroscopy survey, obtained with the European Southern Observatory's 8-m telescope in Chile, with a vast new catalogue of stellar distances and motions determined by the European Space Agency's Gaia astrometry satellite. The aims are to measure the positions, velocities and fundamental parameters for thousands of stars in a set of young stellar clusters. These coeval aggregates are the environments where most stars, including our Sun, were born.

The new observations will be used to improve estimates of the ages of young stars, leading to a clearer definition of the timescales of star and planetary formation. For the first time it will be possible to measure the three-dimensional dynamical properties of young clusters, leading to a better understanding of how they form and then disperse to form the galactic

Professor Jeffries commented: “The power of this work lies in combining complementary information from two absolutely world-leading surveys. The timescales of star and planet formation are uncertain by factors of two or more, leading to considerable doubt about the modes and mechanisms involved. This work should pin down these sources of uncertainty and lead to a much clearer picture of the star-forming process and of the regions where stars like our Sun are born.”

Dr Maxted's work will test the next generation of stellar models using eclipsing binary stars - pairs of stars for which very precise masses and radii can be measured and then compared with the predictions of computer-based physical simulations.

Dr Maxted said: “This project builds on Keele's very successful investment in the WASP-South planet-finding instrument. To understand these extra-solar planets we need better models for their host stars, and it will be the amazing quality of data that comes from these planet surveys that will enable us to tackle some of the hardest problems in modern stellar astrophysics.”