Star and Planet Formation - Dr. Emma Whelan

The question of “How do the stars and planets form?” is one of the oldest questions in the field of astrophysics and yet it remains one of the main topics driving current research. This is evidenced by the on-going large scale investment in projects which cite an understanding of star formation and related activity as one of their main scientific goals. For example, the “Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems” is one of the four themes on which the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, will focus.

However, not all the mass in a star forming region will go into making stars. Typically 5 % will form the sub-stellar brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are the so-called “failed stars”, that never manage to reach masses, and therefore temperatures, high enough for hydrogen fusion to occur. The BD mass range lies just below the normal hydrogen burning mass limit and therefore, brown dwarfs are the link between stars and planets. The accretion and outflow phases are important stages in the formation of a solar mass star. The accretion disks in which planets may eventually form are also widely studied. The question of how brown dwarfs form is still an open one in the field of star formation and an important step towards understanding this came when it was found that brown dwarfs were strong accretors, had accretion disks and could drive outflows.

The expertise of this group is in high angular resolution and spectroscopic observations of outflow and accretion activity in young stars and brown dwarfs. In particular we are interested in how outflow and accretion activity compares in brown dwarfs and young stars. We are also interested in the question of how early in the lifetime of a star planet formation begins. We are involved in several projects on these topics and primarily work in the optical and near-infrared regimes with the telescopes of the European Southern Observatory and in particular the Very Large Telescope. We also have experience in the X-ray regime with Chandra and the sub-millimeter regime with the IRAM 30m telescope and the Sub-millimeter Array. In the future we look forward to the advent of the James Webb Space Telescope and the ESO Extremely Large Telescope.

Students with further queries regarding research or applications for M.Sc. or Ph.D. on this topic should contact Dr. Emma Whelan.