Astronomy and Astrophysics

Mt John Observatory

Astronomy is the oldest science, from ancient China and classical Greece through the Renaissance, where Copernicus, Kepler and Newton made huge contributions to our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and planetary motion.

But the science of astrophysics which seeks to explain the structure and evolution of the stars and other celestial objects by applying the principles of physics to interpret our observations, is little more than a century old.

The McLellan Telescope

Currently astronomy is undergoing huge expansion as we can now view the Universe at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Satellites can get above the atmosphere to detect gamma rays and on the ground huge telescope arrays many kilometres across make exciting discoveries with radio waves. Electronic detectors, known as CCDs have replaced photography for optical observations in astronomy, and this data has led to new advances in our knowledge of the Universe.

Galaxy Evolution

  • UC astronomers are involved in several galaxy surveys, piecing together data from a wide range of wavelengths for large numbers of galaxies. The multi-wavelength coverage allows the measurement of important physical properties of the galaxies, and so tests models of galaxy formation and evolution. The surveys include the H-ATLAS, GAMA and several SKA pathfinder surveys.

Globular Clusters and Galactic Chemical Evolution

  • Observational and theoretical studies of star clusters and their influence on the evolution of galaxies. (Supported by Marsden Fund research grant Element enrichment through mergers and stellar nucleosynthesis, Cottrell & Albrow.)

Gravitational Microlensing

  • UC astronomers are members of two international collaborations involved in the detection and detailed study of gravitationally lensed stars to discover planets and dark matter. PLANET MOA


  • In much the same way that seismologists use earthquakes to deduce the structure of our planet, UC astrophysicists study the internal structure of stars by measuring tiny motions on their surfaces. (Supported by Marsden Fund research grant The music of the stars: Internal structure revealed through the surface vibrations of stars, Pollard & Cottrell.)

Pulsating Stars

  • Pulsating low mass supergiant stars are the precursors of proto-planetary nebulae. UC astrophysicists use facilities at the Mt John Observatory to study the pulsations and the shock waves produced in these stars.

Optical Design

  • UC astrophysicists have designed sophisticated optics and instrumentation for a number of medium - large telescopes both in New Zealand and overseas.

General Relativity and Theoretical Cosmology

  • UC astrophysicists work on theories of fundamental structure, black holes and dark energy.


Department of Physics and Astronomy

University of Canterbury
Private Bag 4800
Christchurch, 8140
New Zealand.
Tel : +64 (3) 364 2523
Fax : +64 (3) 364 2469

University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory

P O Box 56
Lake Tekapo, 7945
New Zealand.
Tel : +64 (3) 680 6000
Fax : +64 (3) 680 6005

A career in astronomy might be as a university academic, or you might work in a government funded observatory or institute. Many astronomers are also employed by the major space agencies, such as NASA and ESA. Some are also employed in public outreach programmes, such as in planetaria. Astronomers have a broad training in many branches of physics as well as astronomy (such as optics, atomic physics, electronics, electromagnetism and radiophysics, nuclear physics, spectroscopy) and they are also skilled in computing and in image processing. All this means that students trained in astronomy are highly employable in many areas of science, technology or computing.

  • Alistair McDougall
  • Christoph Bergmann
  • Pieter De Vis
  • Ariadna Gonzalez Fernandez
Emily Brunsden PhD The music of the stars

Supervisor: Dr Karen Pollard

Jeffrey Simpson PhD Investigating the Fabry-Perot interferometer for finding abundances of s-process elements in globular cluster stars. Thesis- Spectral Matching for Elemental Abundances of Evolved Stars of Globular Clusters

Supervisor: Professor Peter Cottrell

Steven Gibson PhD KwiSpec: The Design and Performance of a High Resolution Echelle Spectrograph for Astronomy

Supervisor: Prof John Hearnshaw; and Associate Supervisor: Dave Cochrane (KiwiStar Optics)

Matt Davie MSc Non-radial mode identification of three gamma-Doradus stars.

Supervisor: Karen Pollard; Co-supervisor Peter Cottrell

Andrew Dallow MSc Investigating the forbidden orbit of the suspected 2.5 M(Jupiter) planet in the nu Octantis close binary system.

Supervisor: Prof John Hearnshaw; Co-supervisor: Dr R Wittenmyer (UNSW); Associate supervisor: Dr Erik Brogt; Assistant supervisor: Dr Karen Pollard

Florian Maisonneuve PhD Probing the interior of stars - Three case studies in speckoscopic mode identification of non-radial pulsating stars.

Supervisor: Dr Karen Pollard Associate supervisor: Professor Peter Cottrell and Assistant Supervisor: Professor John Hearnshaw)

Rachel Soja PhD

Dynamics of Solar System Meteoroids (Supervisor: Prof. Jack Baggaley)

Mita Gopal PhD

Mita started an MSc in 2005 but towards the end of the year transferred to the PhD programme. She researched CNO abundances in the globular cluster Omega Centauri.

Siramas Komonjinda PhD

Siramas is used the HERCULES spectrograph to study binary stars that appear to have very low-eccentrcity orbits

Liz Wylie PhD

Liz's research concerned heavy-element abundances in asymptotic giant branch stars.

Judy Mohr PhD

Judy developed an active optics system for the McLellan Telescope at Mt John for her PhD project.

Clare Worley PhD

Chemical abundance variations and their spatial distribution in globular clusters

Supervisors:- Assoc Prof Peter Cottrell, Professor Ken Freeman, RSA, ANU and Dr David Wiltshire

Veronica Miller PhD

Veronica's research involved searching for transiting extrasolar planets in the Galactic bulge.

Duncan Wright, MSc PhD

Duncan obtained his MSc in 2003 with a thesis entitled A spectroscopic study of two non-radially pulsating stars: HD160641 and FG Virginis. His doctoral research was concerned with mode identification in QW Puppis, which is a Gamma-Doradus variable.

Andrew Rakich, MSc extramural PhD 

Andrew's MSc thesis (2001) applied algebraic methods to the design of three mirror anastigamts. He is now enrolled for a PhD that extends this work to four-mirror systems.

Tamsyn McClelland extramural, part-time MSc  Tamsyn wrote an MSc thesis reviewing the history, theory and observations of gravitational microlensing.
Stuart Barnes

MSc (1998)

PhD (2005)

Stuart completed his MSc thesis on Spectroscopic observations of the circumstellar disk of Beta Pictoris in 1998. He then worked for his PhD on several aspects of the construction of high resolution astronomical spectrographs, including HERCULES (High Efficiency and Resolution Canterbury University Large Echelle Spectrograph), which will enhance the ability to perform high resolution and precision spectroscopy at Mt John, and the High-Resolution Spectrograph (HRS) for SALT. His PhD was awarded in 2005 and he went on to work for the astronomical instrumentation at the University of Texas in Austin. Stuart is now based in Amsterdam.
David Ramm PhD (2005) David was awarded his PhD in 2005 on Precise stellar radial velocities for determining stellar masses using visual binary systems.
Glenn Bayne PhD (2004) Glenn was awarded his PhD in 2004 for a thesis entitled Eclipsing binary star systems in the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds.
Jennifer McSaveney PhD (2003) The title of Jennifer's PhD thesis was Type II Cepheids: line formation and hydrodynamics. Her degree was awarded in 2002.
Daniel Pooley PhD (2003) The title of Daniel's PhD thesis was Spectroscopic and photometric monitoring of southern post-asymptotic giant branch stars.
John Bentley MSc (2002) John completed his MSc in 2002 with a thesis entitled Short-term instabilities in Gamma Velorum: A search for strange modes in variable stars.
Orlon Petterson

MSc (1996)

PhD (2002)

The research for Orlon's MSc (1996) centred on the spectroscopic monitoring of the protoplanetary-disc star beta Pictoris. This is a currently very topical subject because of the clues beta Pictoris may yield concerning star formation. Orlon then embarked on PhD research centered on binary Cepheids, which was completed in 2002. He now works in Teaching and Computing Support in the Department.
Ceridwen Livingston MSc (2002) Ceridwen obtained an MSc in 2002 with a thesis entitled An analysis of the light curves of 20 novae and their use as distance indicators.
Ljiljana Skuljan PhD (2001) In 2001 Ljiljana successfully completed her PhD research on the declines of R Coronae Borealis stars. She subsequently lectured in the Department.
James Yan Tse MSc (2001)

James completed his MSc thesis in 2001 on the light curve and spectra of Nova Velorum 1999.

Lyndon Watson

MSc (1991)

PhD (2000)

In 1993 Lyndon completed his MSc thesis, entitled Measurement of stellar radial velocities using the LUCIFERS radial-velocity spectrometer. Later that year Lyndon began a PhD, working on active chromoshpere stars which are EUV sources, as shown by ROSAT, and this was submitted in October 1999. Lyndon successfully defended his thesis in February 2000.
Jovan Skuljan PhD (2000)

Jovan was awarded his Ph.D in early 2000. He then undertook postdoctoral reseach in this Department working for the MOA project, and later as a fixed-term lecturer. He is now employed by the Defence Technology Agency in Devonport.

Irene Cummings PhD (1998) Irene completed her Ph.D in 1998. It concerned Small amplitude radial-velocity variability in late-type giants and supergiants.
John Pritchard PhD (1997) John came to Canterbury following a first degree from the University of Otago. He completed his PhD, which centered on the study of eclipsing binary star systems in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, in early 1997. John continued this research as a Post-Doctoral Fellow here at Canterbury. He left Canterbury towards the end of the end of 1999 to take up a Foundation for Research, Science & Technology Postdoctoral Fellowship in Copenhagen. Subsequently he worked for several years as an Operational Staff Astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. He is now with ESO's headquarters in Munich.
Karen Pollard PhD (1994) Karen completed her PhD on The Nature of the Low Mass Supergiants: RV Tauri and R Coronae Borealis Variables in 1994. She has returned to Canterbury, after three years working in South Africa, to take up her second post-doctoral position, a NZ Science and Technology Post-Doctoral Fellowship. Karen then worked as a part-time lecturer in this Department. From here she moved to a similar position at Gettysburg College in the United States, Karen, along with her husband Michael Albrow, has now returned to the Department to take up a permanent lectureship.
Michael Albrow PhD (1994) Michael was awarded his PhD in 1994. His research centered on the theoretical modelling of Metallic line profiles in Cepheid variables. He then held a research position at the South African Astronomical Observatory before returning to a similar position here in 1997. Michael left us in March 2000 to take up a research position at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore but we are pleased that he has now returned to the department as a lecturer.
David Frame MSc (1993) David completed an MSc in Astronomy in 1993. His thesis was entitled A photometric and spectroscopic analysis of the southern extremely hydrogen deficient binary stars . He then completed a PhD in Atmospheric, Ionospheric and Space Physics here at Canterbury, still within the department, and went to work for the Treasury for two years. He then went on to become a Project Manager for at the University of Oxford in the UK. He is the author of the satirical novel Light Speed.
Kaylene Murdoch PhD (1993) Kaylene's PhD thesis was entitled A High precision radial-velocity search for sub-stellar companions to southern solar-type stars, which is to say that she was looking for brown dwarfs and perhaps planets. Kaylene graduated in 1993 and subsequently took up a postdoctoral fellowship in Astrophysics at the University of Oxford in England, and later worked for the Oxford University Press. She is now back in Christchurch working for the State Services Commission.
Donna-Maree Ward MSc (1992) Donna completed her MSc in 1992. Her subject of research was Radial-velocity spectrometry of southern late-type supergiants . She has since done a PhD in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering here at the University of Canterbury.
Alan Wadsworth MSc (1991) Alan's 1991 MSc thesis was entitled A variable star search of ESO Key Programme regions in the Magellanic Clouds.
Steve West MSc (1991) Steve's MSc thesis, which he completed in 1991, was entitled CCD photometry of eclipsing binary stars in the Magellanic Clouds. After this he commenced PhD study at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands. He now lives in Mexico City.
Warrick Lawson PhD (1990) Warrick obtained his PhD in 1990. The topic of his research was The characteristics of cool hydrogen-deficient carbon stars. Warrick is now Associate Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, but maintains a high degree of collaboration with the Canterbury Astronomy Group.

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