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Vacation Studentships in Astronomy at CAS

The Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing (CAS) accepts applications for Vacation Studentships from enthusiastic university students with excellent scholastic records who are in the last, or second last, year of their undergraduate or Honours/Masters degree.

With 24 research faculty, 22 postdoctoral researchers, and nearly 50 PhD students, CAS is a vibrant, friendly environment for studying most fields of astronomy. Swinburne astronomers have guaranteed access to the twin Keck 10-m Telescopes in Hawaii - the world's premier optical observatory - and CAS owns and operates one of Australia's most powerful supercomputers - Ozstar. We also develop advanced, immersive 3D data visualization facilities and create 3-D animations and movies promoting and explaining astronomy to the broader community.

Swinburne's Hawthorn campus is situated in a lively, urban setting just minutes by public transport from Melbourne's city centre.

Our Vacation Studentship programme aims to provide undergraduate students with some insight into how exciting research is and how it is conducted. Students will join a research project, or possibly help start a new one, in one of the many areas of astronomy in which CAS staff and post-docs are experts. The various projects on offer are listed below. Projects can involve all aspects of astronomical research, from proposing or carrying out new telescope observations, to analysing data, to conducting theoretical calculations or advanced simulations. Many previous students have eventually published peer-reviewed research articles on some of their Vacation Studentship research.

In 2023 this programme is expected to run in-person, with remote options possible, and will be available to students currently enrolled at universities in Australia and New Zealand. Projects are expected to run over 8 weeks, between November and February, with the timing to be negotiated between the student and their nominated supervisor. Vacation students are paid a tax-free stipend of $750 per week. An additional $250 is available for students based in New Zealand to offset the increased cost of relocation.

Applications are now being accepted and should be received before 25 August 2023; they should include the following:

  • A cover letter (see below for further information);
  • A copy of your official academic record, including an explanation of the grading system used;
  • Your Curriculum Vitae;
  • Proof of enrolment at an Australian or New Zealand university;
  • Any supporting documentation of previous research;
  • Applicants should also ask a lecturer or supervisor at their current university to send a letter of recommendation by the due date. This should be sent by the lecturer/supervisor directly; applicants should not include reference letters in their own application.

Applications and reference letters should be emailed to Dr. Nikki Nielsen ( with the above information attached (preferably as PDF documents).

The cover letter is important and should:
(i) set out why you are interested in undertaking a vacation studentship at Swinburne and
(ii) list at least two research projects you are interested in working on (with an optional ranking). See below for the current list of projects on offer.

Potential Vacation Studentship Research Projects

The following list outlines particular projects currently on offer. Other projects not listed here may also arise. If you have questions, contact Dr. Nikki Nielsen at the above email.

(Last Updated 01-August-2023)

  • Connecting radio and optical transients

    Transients are astrophysical events that shine brightly and fade away. They are events that usually occur in extreme physical environments such as exploding stars and centers of galaxies. Many of these events are only studied in one wavelength, but only through combining information from different wavelengths we can really understand them.

    In this project we will explore transients detected in both radio and optical surveys. We will explore the optical transients from the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) processed by the Fink broker and the radio transients detected by the VAST survey at the Australian SKA Pathfinder Telescope (ASKAP) survey. The student will find transients and compare the data from different surveys to explore the extreme physical events found.

    Supervisors: Dr. Anais Möller and Dr. Dougal Dobie

  • What are the contaminants of supernova cosmology?

    Supernovae are bright stellar explosions. Type Ia supernovae are standardizable candles, which we can use to measure the cosmic expansion and unveil the nature of Dark Energy. In this project you will explore the properties of events similar to type Ia supernovae that can be contaminating our cosmology measurements. You will study these events properties and their nature.

    Supervisor: Dr. Anais Möller

  • Gravitational Waves and Optical transients

    In this project we will search for optical events that are coincident spatially with gravitational wave detections. We will use the data from one of the large transient surveys in the world, Zwicky Transient Facility, detecting up to 1 million transients per night. We will use Fink broker to cross-match this data with gravitational wave detections and study their properties and abundances.

    Supervisor: Dr. Anais Möller

  • Searching for Satellites and Space Debris in Astronomical Images

    In this project the student will work with various optical data sets to investigate methods of satellite detection/tracking and debris identification. By the year 2030 we expect to have over 60,000 satellites in orbit, over a 700% increase from today. With increased launches and deployment of satellites comes the risk of collisions and debris creation. Already we estimate there are over 100 trillion pieces of debris around the Earth. For astronomers, satellites and debris can severely impact our ability to do science. For the wider public, debris creates a risk of creating an unable low earth orbit in our life times. By using large astronomical optical data sets, from the biggest astronomical cameras in the world, we can tackle two problems at once: 1) develop algorithms to quickly identify likely satellites/debris flashes for use in astronomy, and 2) catalogue the positions and time of satellite/debris detection for the use in space situational awareness. Experience with python is helpful, but not necessary as this project can be broken down into different skill levels to make sure the student gets the most out of it for the skills they are interested in for the future.

    Supervisor: Dr. Sara Webb

  • Searching for a pot of gold in pulsar timing array data sets using machine learning

    The Universe is permeated by low frequency gravitational waves, a fundamental property of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The gravitational waves are produced by supermassive black holes, billions of times more massive than the Sun.

    These gravitational waves are signatures of some of the most significant interactions in our Universe: the collisions of galaxies and the inspiral of the supermassive black holes at their core. We can detect these through observations of pulsars, ultra stable rotating neutron stars that can be used as cosmic clocks, which we refer to as a pulsar timing array. Recently the first compelling evidence for these gravitational waves was announced by pulsar timing arrays in Australia, Europe, and North America. Swinburne leads the MeerKAT Pulsar Timing Array, which will soon have the most sensitive array in the world.

    However, there exists other signals in the data from alternate astrophysical sources. This creates difficulties in detecting and characterising the gravitational waves. The current method for searching for these signals is particularly slow and computationally expensive, involving the sampling of hundreds of parameters simultaneously. Soon, as data sets get larger, this will no longer be a viable strategy.

    In this project, you will develop machine learning techniques to find and remove these processes. Machine learning has been shown to perform equally accurately in other areas of astronomy so the potential is immense. You will use state of the art tools and the best data in the world to create a novel technique that is sorely needed in the field.

    Supervisors: A/Prof. Ryan Shannon and Matthew Miles

  • Understanding Ultra-Diffuse Galaxy Formation with the Keck Telescopes

    The closest star to Earth (other than the Sun) is 4 lightyears away. If the Milky Way were an Ultra-Diffuse Galaxy it is likely the closest star would instead be more like 20 lightyears away. This is because Ultra-Diffuse Galaxies have 100x less stars than the Milky Way but are the same size. The night sky would look completely different. Understanding how galaxies can become so large, yet so poor at forming stars is an outstanding problem of current galaxy formation theory. This project uses spectroscopic data already observed on the 10m Keck telescopes to better understand Ultra-Diffuse Galaxy formation. The student will help analyse and understand these data using common astronomical data packages. A basic understanding of coding in Python is required.

    Supervisors: Dr. Jonah Gannon and Prof. Duncan Forbes

  • Searching for gamma-ray emission from flaring radio stars

    Flares from magnetically active dwarf stars should produce relativistic particles capable of emitting gamma-rays. So far, the only isolated main sequence star besides the Sun to have been detected in gamma-rays is TVLM 513-46546, a rapidly rotating red dwarf star that is detected with periodic radio emission. Detecting gamma-ray flares from more dwarf stars can improve our understanding of their magnetospheric properties. Such energetic stellar activity could also prove hostile towards the habitability of their planets, and understanding these energetic stellar activities can provide better prospects for detection of extraterrestrial life. Preliminary results report an upper limit of gamma-ray emission from the population of optical flare stars. In this work, we will apply similar techniques to a sample of radio flare stars detected by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. This work aims to detect stellar flares in gamma-rays observed by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

    Further Reading:

    • Detection of periodic gamma-ray signal from TVLM 513-46546 and simple stacking results of 97 nearby stars: Song et al. 2020
    • Stacking analysis (applied to pulsars) but applicable to stars: Song et al. 2021

    Supervisors: Dr. Yuzhe (Robert) Song, Dr. Dougal Dobie, and Dr. Yuanming Wang

  • The GECKOS Survey: Studying Galaxy Scale Wind with the Very Large Telescope

    Supernovae are among the most energetic events in the universe, typically outshining the galaxy they occur in. While very uncommon in our own Milky Way, supernovae happen very often in so-called "star-burst" galaxies that are making new stars at 10-100 times the rate of the Milky Way. In these galaxies, clusters of supernovae explode in the disk, the combined energy and momentum pushes gas up out of the spiral galaxy and into the halo above the disk. This changes the properties of the galaxy, and is considered by most theories to be a linchpin that regulates the growth of galaxies. We view this as faint filaments of gas that extend above star forming galaxies. In this project we will study this gas. The physical properties of the gas directly relate to the physical models of how these large outflows of gas evolve and shape outflows. We have a 300+ hour program using the MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope to study the outflowing gas. The student will be part of an international team that includes astronomers in Germany, UK, France, USA and Australia. The student will develop skills in python and "datacube" analysis in astronomy by reducing MUSE data and applying emission line fitting software. At Swinburne they will work in a team of 3 PhD students and 2 postdocs, along with myself.

    Supervisors: A/Prof. Deanne Fisher and Dr. Barbara Mazzilli Ciraulo

  • Axion Dark Matter Detection – Data Acquisition and Analysis

    The nature of dark matter is one of the biggest mysteries in modern science – it makes up five sixths of the matter in the Universe, and is of unknown composition. It surrounds and passes through the Earth at all times. Axions are a hypothetical particle, and one of the leading candidates for dark matter. Swinburne is building a new axion detector to try and measure small effects induced by dark matter when it passes through the laboratory. The kind of experiment we are building is called an axion haloscope. The hope is that if the dark matter is made of axions, the detector can shed some light on its properties. The detector is being physically constructed and will be hosted at Swinburne – but work needs to be done on the software and analysis side.

    This project will focus on a data acquisition and analysis pipeline for the new axion dark matter detector. You will be working on code to interface with laboratory equipment, acquire new experimental data, and then tease through that data looking for hints of new physics.

    Supervisor: Dr. Ben McAllister

  • Are the fundamental constants of nature the same in distant galaxies?

    Distant galaxies, seen in silhouette against bright, background quasars, imprint a characteristic pattern of absorption lines onto the quasar light as it travels to Earth. This pattern is determined by the fundamental constants of nature. Using spectra taken with the largest optical telescopes in the world (e.g. Keck and Subaru in Hawaii, VLT in Chile), this pattern can be compared with laboratory spectra to determine whether the fundamental constants were indeed the same in the distant, early universe as we measure them on Earth today. Several different avenues are available for exploration in this project. For example, one option is to analyse new spectra taken from the Keck and/or VLT with the aim of measuring the variability of the fine-structure constant (effectively, the strength of electromagnetism). Another option is to improve the methods used to make these exacting measurements so that we can make the best use of a new instrument on the VLT. These and other options will be discussed with the candidate.

    Further Reading:

    Supervisor: Prof. Michael Murphy

  • Unveiling Elements from Early Stars in the Universe

    Following the Big Bang, the first stars in the Universe consisted only of hydrogen and helium. Other elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen were generated inside these stars. After the stars exploded as Supernovae, these new elements gathered to form the next generation of stars. Exactly how much of each atomic element was present in these early stars? Astrophysicists are keen to know the answer as these elements form the initial conditions from which all subsequent stars, galaxies, planets and ultimately life is made!

    The research project will use data from the XQR-30 catalogue of elements observed in absorption toward redshift 6 quasars (up to 13 billion years ago). The student will measure the relative abundances of different elements (for example carbon and oxygen) in distant gas clouds, and then use the starfit tool to compare these with models of early stars as well as measurements of ancient stars still shining today in the Milky Way.

    Supervisors: Prof. Emma Ryan-Weber and Dr. Rebecca Davies

  • The growing landscape of binary black hole formation scenarios

    Gravitational waves from around 100 binary black hole mergers have been observed by Advanced LIGO and Virgo. The origin of binary black holes remains uncertain, with multiple proposed formation channels, including from isolated pairs of massive stars and dynamically assembled binaries in dense stellar environments. More recently, additional formation channels have been proposed, including from hierarchical stellar triples, from black holes trapped in disks of gas around active galactic nuclei, or even black holes of primordial origin. Each of these formation scenarios predicts unique, but overlapping distributions of binary parameters, such as mass, spin, eccentricity and redshift. In this project we will examine whether it is possible to constrain the relative contributions of each of these scenarios to the observed binary black hole population.

    Further Reading:

    Supervisor: Dr. Simon Stevenson

  • The formation of binary pulsars

    Millisecond pulsars (MSPs) are believed to achieve their rapid rotation by accreting mass from a companion star in a close binary. Low-mass X-ray binaries (LMXBs) and Accreting Millisecond X-ray Pulsars (AMXPs) are observed during periods of active accretion, whilst so called ‘spider’ pulsars (‘redbacks’ and ‘black widows’) may represent a more evolved stage, where the companion is ablated by the intense radiation from the pulsar. In this project we will compute detailed binary stellar evolution models using the code MESA. In particular, we will examine the evolutionary stage prior to the LMXB stage accounting for recent advances in the understanding of magnetic braking of low-mass stars, and investigate the future evolution of such binaries (i.e., whether they evolve into redbacks or black widows).

    Further Reading:

    Supervisor: Dr. Simon Stevenson