2017 Research Projects

Developing Astronomical Instruments in the Optical and Infrared

Our lab develops infrared astronomical instruments ranging from imagers and spectrographs that address a wide range of scientific topics. Students who are interested in getting their hands dirty designing and building optical and electronic devices for astronomy are highly encouraged to apply.

There are opportunities for students to be involved in developing infrared imagers for the Arctic Observatory, which will be located in Ellesmere Island, to search for transiting exoplanets around low mass stars. Students can also work on projects testing novel MEMS devices required to carry out infrared multi-object spectroscopy. Spectrographs built using these devices will be essential for surveying very faint, distant galaxies. Finally, students can get involved in lab-based adaptive optics experiments that could potentially improve the image quality of large telescopes like the future Thirty Meter Telescope.”

The project will be supervised by Prof. Suresh Sivanandam, Dunlap Institute.


What does the chemical composition of planets tell us about their formation?

This is a flexible project dealing mainly with planets formation theory, a set of physical models trying to explain how does planets form and acquire their properties.

The central idea behind this work is to use the chemical composition (elemental Carbon, Oxygen, deuterium, etc.. abundances) as an indicator for the planets formation location and processes. These indicators are highly sensitive to the local physical properties (temperature, pressure ..) of specific location where the planet formed, and could provide valuable information about planets (and smaller bodies like comets) formation. The project can deal with either solar system giant planets, exoplanets orbiting other stars, or the solar system small bodies (comets, asteroids) and will consist mainly of theoretical studies and computer simulations.

The project will be supervised by Mohamad Ali-Dib, Centre for Planetary Sciences (CPS).

Construction and integration of balloon-borne telescopes

The Balloon-borne Astrophysics group (Professor Netterfield) has opportunities for a variety of undergraduate positions for the summer of 2016 in the construction and integration of the SuperBIT and Spider balloon-borne
telescopes. Opportunities include mechanical and electronic engineering, flight and ground software, construction and debugging, data analysis, and flight observation planning. Experience in any of these areas is a plus, but only interest is required.

Spider is a mm-wave telescope designed to search for the signature of gravitational waves from the epoch of Cosmological Inflation in the early universe.  (If you have been following such things, Spider is the sister
experiment to BICEPII, but is designed specifically to be able to detect and remove signals from polarized dust).  It will make a 3 week flight from Antarctica.

SuperBIT is a wide-field visible/near UV diffraction-limited imaging telescope designed to look measure the distribution of dark matter around over 100 massive galaxy clusters through both strong and weak lensing.

There are many opportunities on either telescope; the project will be adjusted to fit the interests of the applicant.

For more information about our group, see

The project will be supervised by Prof. Barth Netherfield

Exploring fundamental physics with radio pulsars

Location: Max-Planck Institut für Radioastronomie (MPIfR), Bonn, Germany

Eligiable for University of Toronto students only

Radio pulsars are the densest objects in the Universe. With masses larger than that of the Sun, but radii not greater than an average metropolitan city, their properties reflect the interplay between the four fundamental forces, in conditions well beyond the reach of terrestrial experiments.

For this summer project, students will collaborate closely with scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy to analyse observations of radio pulsars in binary systems There will also be opportunities for hands-on experience with the 100-m Effelsberg radio telescope – one of the largest fully-steerable telescopes on Earth- as well as remote observations with other major facilities such as the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico.

For more info see:
Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy: http://www.mpifr-bonn.mpg.de/
Fundamental Physics group: http://www.mpifr-bonn.mpg.de/forschung/fundamental
Effelsberg radio telescope: http://www.mpifr-bonn.mpg.de/effelsberg

The project will be supervised by John Antoniadis, Dunlap Institute/MPIfR Bonn.

Study of Young Supernovae and Unusual Optical Transients

Supernovae studies have been central in moving modern astronomy forward, which is best described as “seeding the elements and measuring the Universe.” Young supernovae that are detected within a few hours from the explosion are of particular interest and importance since they have crucial information for how supernovae explode. They are also prime targets for neutrino and/or gravitational wave detection. Using the new KMTNet facility, which provides 24-hour continuous sky coverage with three wide-field telescopes in southern hemisphere, we are now detecting elusive young supernovae as well as unusual optical transients previously unidentified. This project is to study those young supernovae and optical transients to understand their nature.

The project will be supervised by Prof. Dae-Sik Moon, Dunlap Institute/Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics (DAA).


Digital Telescopes

Radio astronomy is undergoing a renaissance, thanks in large part to a new generation of telescopes, where massive computing backends are beginning to supplant the mirrors that focus light in a traditional instrument. By shifting from analog processing of light to digital, whole new regimes of inquiry open up. As a general principle, these telescope’s entire data set can be forked and re-processed in many ways, with the drawback that the sheer volume of the raw data means it must be processed in realtime or discarded.

This project involves researching, developing, and implementing various algorithms to allow studies of the time-variable radio sky. The ideal candidate would be comfortable with various programming languages and willing to learn interferometry, Fourier-space algorithms, and sprong programming or signal processing skills.

The project will be supervised by Prof. Keith Vanderlinde, Dunlap Institute.


ARO: Radio Receiver Development

The 46m dish at the Algonquin Radio Observatory (ARO) has played an important role in the history of radio astronomy, as one station of the first-ever demonstration of Very Long Baseline Interferometry. Researchers at the University of Toronto are now using the dish as part of a VLBI campaign to study the scintillation patterns of pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars, and to search for and localize the mysterious phenmonena dubbed Fast Radio Bursts.

As part of these efforts, the receiver chain which gathers radio light from the cosmos and records it to disk is being re-developed to operate over a broader band and with improved noise characteristics.

This project involves developing, implementing, and commissioning components of a radio receiver chain, to be deployed at ARO and operated on-sky over the course of the summer. The ideal candidate should have basic electronics experience and be comfortable with undergraduate-level electromagnetism.

The projects will be supervised by Prof. Keith Vanderlinde, Dunlap Institute.


Supernova template fitting with Gaussian processes

Supernova cosmology often relies on fitting spectro-photometric templates from low-redshift objects to data taken at higher redshift. However, the sample of low-z spectra is heterogeneous and not well calibrated. In this project we will use Gaussian processes to form a reference theoretical template from a combination of low-z templates of different quality. We will then test the templates by fitting them against simulated supernovae.

Projects will be supervised by Prof. Renee Hlozek, Dunlap Institute.


Lensing mass calibration of galaxies with the CMB

The Cosmic Microwave Background is weakly lensed by gravitational structures along the line of sight. Reconstructing the lensing deflection field for from measurements of the CMB provide us a way to “weigh” the galaxies. We will stack the lensing maps on the positions of CMASS galaxies of a certain luminosity from an optical (SDSS) galaxy catalogue. This will give us a handle on the average mass of the galaxies of a certain brightness, and allow us to put constraints on non-standard dark matter models. This is linked to previous work we did stacking the lensing maps from the Atacama Cosmology Telescope on galaxy positions.

The project will be supervised by Prof. Renee Hlozek, Dunlap Institute.

Dynamical effects of spiral structure

Despite giving rise to their name, the importance of spiral structure to the evolution and orbital dynamics of spiral galaxies is not well understood. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is believed to be a spiral galaxy, but the location, rotation speed, and total mass of the spiral arms is largely unconstrained. The Gaia satellite mission is mapping the positions and velocities of 1 billion stars in one of the largest data projects in astrophysics. Using data from Gaia, we hope to learn more about the origin and effect of spiral structure in the Milky Way. The object of this project is to investigate the effect of spiral structure on the motions of stars near the Sun using theoretical simulations, to make predictions for what might be seen in the Gaia data. Simulations will be performed using the Python galpy code (galpy.readthedocs.org/en/latest/) and prior knowledge of Python is required

The project will be supervised by Prof. Jo Bovy, Dunlap Institute/DAA.


Measuring the solar motion with Gaia

The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission has recently published it’s first data release, providing unprecedented detail on the dynamics of around 2 million stars near to the Sun. We found a distinct lack of stars with close to zero angular momenta, which are expected to have fallen into the Galactic centre and scattered onto chaotic orbits (see Figure). We used this dip in the velocity dispersion to make a measurement of the velocity with which the Sun rotates around the Galaxy by fitting a theoretical model of this effect to the data. However, the next Gaia data release will provide measurements for over 1 billion stars, enabling us to make a much more detailed measurement next year. With this larger data set it will become extremely important to understand any effect which may alter the measured value. We are offering a project to explore the effect that the bar and spiral structure has on the orbits of these stars and how they will change the measured value for the Solar velocity.

The projects will be supervised by Dunlap Fellow Jason Hunt.

Algonquin Pulsar VLBI scnintillometry

Description: the project will analyze radio data of pulsars to utilize the interstellar medium as a giant plasma lens to study the properties of pulsars and space-time to unprecedented precision. The summer project will involve field trips to the Algonquin Radio Telescope to take VLBI measurements simultaneously with other large radio telescopes around the globe.

For more details see http://www.cita.utoronto.ca/~pen/wordpress/algonquin-pulsar-project/

Projects will be supervised by Prof. Ue-Li Penn, Dunlap Institute/Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA).

Super-Earths and their chaotic history

One of the most striking discoveries from the Kepler mission is that most stars have planets, while the most common planets are the so-called Super-Earths (radii ~2-3 larger than that of Earth). An intriguing sub-population resides in eccentric orbits, possibly due to a violent history from the gravitational interactions with distant planets. In this project, we will study the chaotic behavior of these super-Earths and their possible long-term dynamical outcomes. The student will gain knowledge and practice on how to run and analyze orbit integrations, analyze chaos in dynamical systems, and learn about the exciting new results in exoplanet science.

The project will be supervised by Cristobal Petrovich, CITA.

Planets, small bodies and planet formation

A list of possible projects including:

  • statistical study of kepler planets
  • computer simulations of planet dynamics
  • sun-grazing comets in the Solar system
  • the cratering history of the Kuiper belt on Pluto/Charon
  • planetesimal accretion polluting white dwarfs

The project will be supervised by Prof. Yanquin Wu, DAA.

The Cosmic Lab

The student will work on a project related to future CMB experiments. These include cosmological tracers of new physics, neutrino mass and dark matter annihilation. The project can be adjusted to be more data/coding or more theoretical.

The project will be supervised by Daan Meerburg, CITA.

Kinematic Morphology of Large-scale Structure and Galaxies Formation

Due to the gravitational instability, the matters in our Universe form a complex network, known as the cosmic web. Among various methods of characterizing this structure, the velocity anisotropy plays a distinctive role as it connects the large-scale environment to the complicated small-scale gravitational and baryonic physics. Particularly, since any initial rotational degree of freedom would decay away quickly, the emergence of the vorticity could be crucial for understanding the formation and evolution of dark matter halos and galaxies. The study of this question could eventually help us to understand other fundamental cosmological problems, like the clustering of biased tracer and eventually the expansion history of the Universe.

The student will work on the analysis of hydrodynamical simulation to understand various large-scale effects on the emergence of vorticity and galaxies formation.

The project will be supervised by Xin Wang and Sandrine Codis, CITA.

Are planetary systems filled to capacity?

The Kepler mission has discovered hundreds of multiplanet systems around other stars, many of which host planets in very close proximity to one another. This raises the question of how maximally packed these orbital configurations are, with important implications for our understanding of how planetary systems form. This task requires evaluating whether given orbital configurations are dynamically stable over the systems’ respective lifetimes of billions of years. We have recently trained machine learning algorithms for this task. The project would therefore involve learning to navigate the database of planetary systems discovered by Kepler and to apply machine learning models. Proficiency in Python is required.

The project will be supervised by Dan Tamayo, Centre for Planetary Studies.

Cosmic Structure Formation

Measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) can inform us of the structure and evolution of our Universe.  This project will involve calculations to understand what can be learned about cosmic structure formation when combining CMB data with data from other types of measurements, including galaxy surveys.  Depending on the student’s interest, the project could be completely theoretical, it could involve data analysis, or it could be a combination of the two.

The project will be supervised by Alex van Engelen, CITA

Testing Fundamental Physics in Large Scale Structure Experiments via Simulations

Details to follow

The project will be supervised by Prof. Dick Bond, CITA.

Constraining cosmological parameters with gravitational wave observations

After the first observations of gravitational waves from binary black hole systems during the fall of 2015, the Advanced LIGO detectors have recently undergone a series of upgrades increasing their sensitivity further, especially targeting binary systems containing neutron stars as well as black holes.

Such a neutron star – black hole (NSBH) system would be of special interest since they, through observation of the tidal disruption of the neutron star as it’s merging with the black hole, could provide a measurement of both the distance to and the cosmological redshift of the source binary. This would provide a new way of directly measuring the cosmological parameters governing the Universe in which we live.

This summer we plan to perform a study investigating the capabilities of current, and near-future, gravitational wave detector networks in constraining cosmological parameters through simulations of a large population of NSBH sources. The student will have the opportunity to learn about cosmology and its observational effects on gravitational waves, as well as gain insight into modern data analysis techniques including the application of both numerical and analytical modelling of statistical analysis.

The project will be supervised by Carl-Johan Haster and Prayush Kumar, CITA.



Particle Fragmentation and Planet Formation: From Grains of Sand to Gas Giants

Many of the processes involved in planet formation are sensitive to the complex interactions between small grains and gas that occur within proto-planetary disks (PPDs). In particular, when small particles collide at high enough speeds in a PPD (due to turbulence or a passing planetary core), they can fragment into many smaller grains that behave very differently from their parent bodies due to gas drag forces. This effect is yet to be included in high-resolution astrophysical simulations on length scales relevant to planet formation.

The goal of this project is to develop a particle fragmentation module within the Athena code, a widely used hydrodynamic/magnetohydrodynamic solver (https://trac.princeton.edu/Athena/). This can then be used to more realistically simulate many stages in planet formation, from the gravitational collapse of small objects to planetesimals to the growth of giant planet cores by a process known as ‘pebble accretion’.  The student will gain an understanding of the processes governing gas and grain dynamics in PPDs as well as in-depth experience with cutting edge scientific computing.

The project will be supervised by Matt Russo and Prof. Chris Thompson, CITA.

Numerical Modelling of Star Formation

In a simplistic view, protostars form when clumps of gas collapse under their own gravitational weight. The reality of star formation, however, is much more complicated. Forming a star and creating the conditions in which stars form involves the combination of a lot of different physics, including gravity, hydrodynamics, turbulence, magnetic fields and dust.

In this project, we will use computational simulations to model the formation of protostars and/or the the star formation environment of molecular clouds. This project is best suited for a student interested in computational astrophysics. Previous experience with programming is an asset, but not required.

The project will be supervised by Terrence Tricco, CITA.

Searching for gas pressure filaments associated with clusters in Planck maps

Using the thermal Sunyaev Zeldovich (tSZ) effect of the upscattering of cosmic microwave background (CMB) photons by hot gas in the cosmic web has undergone a revolution in recent years, with the Planck, ACT and SPT CMB experimental data. This has been mostly used to detect clusters, some already know from their optical and X-ray emission, but many (many) new. As well there will be scattering from hot gas along filaments joining the clusters together but detecting that is harder. This project will use novel statistical ways to detect tSZ filaments, e.g., symmetry-broken oriented stacking in the tSZ maps on tSZ peaks and at known cluster positions. We will apply the method to the Planck tSZ data and to many large scale tSZ simulations created with the peak patch method, providing an ensemble for error estimation.
This project involves the Summer student, Professor Bond, Senior RA Marcelo Alvarez, graduate student George Stein, and, from afar, Professor Zhiqi Huang of Sun Yat Sen University in China. The student will learn about the cosmological physics associated with gas in the cosmic web and develop and apply computer tools, eg of a stacking code first created for exploring the filament structure of cosmic dust and the peak patch suite of codes for making mocks of large scale structure.

The project will be supervised by Dr.Richard Bond, CITA.

Exploring Hydrogen Lyman Alpha Absorption Tomographic Maps

This project involves  the theory and analysis of quasar HI absorption line spectra, correlated spatailly as well as in frequency,  from the data of peak patch simulations. The goal is to learn how the large number of quasars at high redshift that we have now, and the even larger number in the future from surveys such as LSST, can be used to make a “Line Absorption Map” in 3D to explore structure in the galaxy formation epoch.
This project involves the Summer student, Professor Bond, Senior RA Marcelo Alvarez, and graduate student George Stein.  The student will learn about the cosmological physics associated with gas in the cosmic web and develop and apply computer tools, eg of a stacking code first created for exploring the filament structure of cosmic dust and the peak patch suite of codes for making mocks of large scale structure.


The project will be supervised by Dr.Richard Bond, CITA.