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Scientists investigate

Find out how scientists go about their research.

In Week 3 we will talk about the importance of keeping your lessons up to date by including the latest scientific findings. In this video (aimed at older pupils aged 11+) you will learn about some important scientific techniques that allow astrophysicists to perform forensics on stars such as the Sun.

Astronomy isn’t just about beautiful images, it is a collaborative process between scientists across all fields and space engineers. Their joint expertise is crucial for investigating the physical and chemical properties of our solar system, stars, galaxies and exoplanets.

We interviewed Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, Senior Manager Public Astronomy at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and asked her about her research into star formation and looking for signs of life on moons in our Solar System:

Do you work by yourself or do you collaborate with teams internationally?
With my research, I work with an astrophysicist at Cardiff and we are part of an international group of 30 scientists called PEBBLES (Planet Earth Building Blocks Legacy E-Merlin Survey). In PEBBLES we are trying to understand how planets form. I also work with scientists from the Gould Belt Survey where we are looking for star forming regions. We use telescopes around the world to carry out these surveys.
What type of telescopes do you use?
I use the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on an extinct volcano called Mauna Kea in Hawaii – this telescope detects infrared and microwave radiation. I also use the APEX and ALMA radio telescopes which are situated in the Atacama desert in Chile. I’ve also used the 30 metre IRAM radio dish located in Granada in Spain. The E-Merlin Survey uses 7 radio telescopes across the UK. Radio waves can travel through the clouds in the UK sky!
Do you travel a lot?
Now that I work mainly in science communication and engaging the public with astronomy, I don’t travel as much as I used to! When most of my time was spent doing research, I would go out to telescopes to collect observational data around twice a year and I would attend conferences abroad where I present my research and network with the rest of the scientific community involved in planetary and stellar science.
In your opinion, what is the most exciting recent discovery?
There are two icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn called Europa and Enceladus – these are very exciting because they have plumes of material erupting from their thick icy shells and scientists are very sure that they both have a global ocean of liquid water beneath the ice. The Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017, passed through the plumes of Enceladus and detected gases such as carbon, hydrogen and methane – a potential food source for microbes (if they exist!).
Is there some other area of astrophysics that you would love to study in the future?
I would love to do something more hands-on and help build some of these telescopes, particularly instruments that go out into space. I’ve been in a clean-room where they remove almost all microbes from telescopes and spacecrafts due to go into space.
Do you think we’ll find life elsewhere?
I think its possible we’ll find life. Life needs liquid water to evolve and recent discoveries show there might be water on Enceladus and Europa and small amounts of water have been discovered on Mars. I think there’s a real possibility there might be life elsewhere.
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Our Solar System and Beyond: Teaching Primary Science

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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