A&G Highlights Meeting - February 2024 Hybrid

A&G Highlights Meeting
Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash
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Book your FREE RAS A&G Highlights Meeting Hybrid Ticket


16:00 – 16:05 Prof Mike Edmunds RAS Announcements


16:05 – 16:35 The Active Sun: New Scientific Insights from ESA’s Solar Orbiter Mission

Dr. Laura A. Hayes

Solar Orbiter, a mission launched in 2020 by the European Space Agency in collaboration with NASA, aims to study our complex and dynamic closest star, the Sun. Embarking on a unique trajectory, the mission approaches the Sun as close as 0.28 astronomical units (AU) during its perihelia, providing unprecedented observations of the solar atmosphere and its polar regions. This talk will introduce the mission's objectives and design, present the latest scientific results from Solar Orbiter, and highlight its contributions to understanding solar processes, including solar wind origination and magnetic field dynamics. Furthermore, the discussion will extend to how Solar Orbiter's findings are being integrated with data from other missions and ground-based observatories across the heliosphere, such as Parker Solar Probe, SDO, and DKIST, opening new avenues for comprehensive solar and space weather research.

Dr. Laura A. Hayes is a solar physicist at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a research fellow. Her research focuses on the high-energy processes in the solar atmosphere, and the solar flare impacts of space weather. She completed her Ph.D. at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland in 2018, and then furthered her postdoctoral work at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, USA until 2021 before joining ESA as a research fellow.


16:35 – 17:05 The origin of metals and dust within galaxies in the first billion years of cosmic time

Joris Witstok

Elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, metals, impact many facets of galaxy evolution. A significant fraction of metals condense into solid state as astrophysical dust grains which absorb, scatter, and re-emit light, reshaping the spectrum of galaxies from rest-frame UV to far-infrared (FIR) wavelengths. Interstellar dust is thus an indispensable component both in theory and observations of galaxy evolution. Dust emission is generally the primary coolant of the interstellar medium (ISM) and facilitates the gravitational collapse and fragmentation of gas clouds from which stars form, while altering the emission spectrum of galaxies from ultraviolet (UV) to far-infrared wavelengths through the reprocessing of starlight. However, the astrophysical origin of various types of dust grains remains an open question, especially in the early Universe where galaxies were previously thought to be largely dust-free. In this talk, I will present direct evidence for the presence of carbonaceous grains from the detection of the broad UV absorption feature around 2175 Å in deep JWST/NIRSpec spectra of galaxies up to the first billion years of cosmic time, at a redshift of z ~ 7. This dust attenuation feature has previously only been observed spectroscopically in older, more evolved galaxies at redshifts of z < 3.

The carbonaceous grains giving rise to this feature are often thought to be produced on timescales of hundreds of millions of years by asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars, while our results suggest a more rapid evolutionary scenario for the growth of dust grains. I will further show that substantial dust production on such short timescales is required to explain the high dust yields seen in a sample of 17 galaxies in the early Universe (4 < z < 8) with well-sampled far-infrared spectral energy distributions (SEDs) compiled from the literature. The observed dust masses, whose degeneracy with dust temperature can only be mitigated with a well-constrained SED, in several sources significantly exceed the prediction of stellar dust build-up even under a highly optimistic dust yield, pointing towards additional and/or accelerated dust production channels.

Joris Witstok is a Dutch astrophysicist who completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands. He moved to the University of Cambridge for his master’s degree, where he conducted research on numerical simulations of diffuse emission from the cosmic web supervised by Dr Ewald Puchwein, Dr Girish Kulkarni, and Prof Martin Haehnelt. Joris undertook his doctoral studies under the supervision of Dr Renske Smit and Prof Roberto Maiolino in Cambridge, leading observational research into the physics of star formation within the first galaxies using cutting-edge facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. In November 2022, a month before the long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), he defended his thesis ‘Spectroscopic studies of star-forming galaxies and the intergalactic medium in the early Universe’. He is currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Sidney Sussex College and the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, where he continues to explore the distant galaxy frontier as a member of the JWST/NIRSpec Guaranteed Time Observations (GTO) Galaxy Assembly team.


17:05 – 17:45 Our Fragile Space: Protecting the Near-Space Environment - Photography exhibition and engagement project

Max Alexander

Just in the last few years there has been an exponential growth in the number of mega-constellation satellites, raising concerns around the world about the impact this will have on orbital space and our shared sky. This photography exhibition ‘Our Fragile Space’ raises awareness of this critical issue. It shows that this is not an unlimited resource and the need for stewardship of the near-space environment. The RAS is a key player in these endeavours.

‘Our Fragile Space’ uses visual storytelling to show the bigger picture of the societal and economic benefits that space gives us; of anthropogenic change: how we are polluting on the land, in the oceans with plastic in particular, in the atmosphere, and now in this fourth domain of space, with space debris; of the impact on professional astronomy, and of the emerging field of space sustainability. 

A year in the making, the photography for this project took me to the top of volcanoes in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, clean rooms across Europe, and mega-constellation launches on both coasts of the United States within a few days of each other. It also took me on a journey through the space sector, government, space agencies, military, regulation, insurance market and professional astronomy.

This influential exhibition has been used by policy units across Europe and the United States. Opening at Lloyd’s of London, it has also been to the United Nations in Vienna, the European Parliament, New York Stock Exchange and Jodrell Bank. It has ‘galvanised space sustainability policy for the UK government’ and Lloyd’s now include ‘space’ in their purpose statement.

Max Alexander, an international photographer and creative strategist, specialises in science communication through visual storytelling. His passion for understanding the universe and making it meaningful to others has motivated him to work in this arena. He has a Diploma in Astronomy from UCL and is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Max freelances for numerous prestigious organisations around the world including the UK Space Agency, ESA, ESO, SKAO, book publishers and magazines. He has photographed Nobel Prize winners, astronauts and world leaders. Max has had two science-led exhibitions at the Royal Albert Hall in London: ‘Explorers of the Universe’ and ‘Illuminating Atoms’ for STFC and The Wellcome Trust. In his work for the UK Space Agency, Max has extensively photographed ESA British astronaut Tim Peake. This included documenting his Soyuz training and directly providing him with photography training while he was on-board the International Space Station. Max proposed International Asteroid Day, sanctioned by the United Nations and is their Photographer-in-Residence.

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Venue Address

The Geological Society,Burlington House,LONDON


51.5087877, -0.13876359999995