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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/Y003802/1
Title: Hawking - White dwarfs in 3D: lenses into distant worlds
Principal Investigator: Cunningham, Dr T
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
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Department: Institute of Astronomy
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Scheme: EPSRC Fellowship
Starts: 01 May 2024 Ends: 30 April 2027 Value (£): 384,167
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Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
19 Sep 2023 EPSRC Physical Sciences Prioritisation Panel - September 2023 Announced
05 Dec 2023 The Stephen Hawking Fellowships Panel- December 2023 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
We live on planet Earth, yet how many of us ever think about what is deep inside our planet? If it's hard to probe Earth's deep interior, imagine how hard it is for a planet orbiting another star thousands of light years away. We know of thousands of exoplanets around Sun-like stars, but what is it like on their surfaces? Do they have mountains, land, oceans? Key to answering these questions is what the exoplanets are made of, but directly measuring the bulk chemical composition of these planets is impossible. That is, until the host star dies.

A star like our Sun ends its life as a white dwarf. When it does, the planetary bodies are pulled into the star's atmosphere where constituent rocky elements become detectable. Numerous studies have shown that white dwarfs can reveal accreted elemental compositions -- a key input into models of planet formation -- but if scientists are to use these old stars to find out what planets are made from, really accurate models of white dwarfs are needed. The main uncertainty that hampers this technique is the treatment of convection in the atmosphere of these stellar remnants. The aim of my fellowship is to make a step change improvement to our models of onvection, making this method of chemical analysis of exoplanets viable.

My work aims to bring together expertise from fluid dynamics and astronomy to improve our understanding of new discoveries of evolved exoplanetary systems. I want to model how the white dwarf atmosphere behaves as it ages. I use computational simulations to study what happens to smashed-up planets when they reach the white dwarf surface. Working with international research teams (Chile, US, UK, Germany and Sweden), the models I produce will be coupled with brand new observations to ultimately tell us what the planets were made of. We now know of 360,000 white dwarfs, and one third are expected to be currently eating their own planets! This sample offers an unparalleled opportunity to probe the chemical properties of exoplanetary systems; properties that can offer a glimpse into the likely fate of our own Solar system.

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Organisation Website: http://www.cam.ac.uk