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Research Fellows Directory

Neale Gibson

Dr Neale Gibson

Research Fellow


Queen's University of Belfast

Research summary

The discovery of thousands of exoplanets in our Galaxy has revolutionised our understanding of the formation and evolution of planetary systems. Exoplanets have even been discovered in the so called 'habitable-zone', a region around a star where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface, considered one of the main requirements for life. Indeed, this exoplanet revolution has revived scientific interest in one of humanity's oldest questions: is there extra-terrestrial life in the Universe?

Obtaining spectra of exoplanets is the next step in answering this profound question. Techniques such as transmission and emission spectroscopy enable us to probe the atmospheres of transiting planets, and have led to discoveries of atomic and molecular species, clouds/hazes, and measurements of thermal structure. Despite these successes, many such measurements are dependent on the statistical techniques used to extract the spectra, as we attempt to find tiny signals buried in extremely complex noise sources. These arise both from instrumental systematics, as we push our instrumentation well beyond their design specifications, and host-star activity. Overcoming these limitations is one of the greatest challenges to our current understanding of exoplanets, and my work focuses on advanced observational, statistical and machine-learning techniques to achieve this.

During my fellowship I plan to apply newly developed data-processing tools to the large body of space telscope archival data on exoplanet atmospheres, with the aim of extracting robust exoplanet spectra. I also work on new observational strategies designed to minimise these additional sources of noise as much as possible, and I plan to initiate a ground-based survey of exoplanet atmospheres, building on recent successes using world-leading facilities such as ESO's Very Large Telescope. The end goal is to produce a library of robust transmission and eclipse spectra, and to refine the observational and statistical techniques required for acquiring exoplanet spectra. This will enable us to understand the dominant physical processes governing exoplanet atmospheres and their evolution, and in the near future might even enable us to search for 'biomarkers' in terrestrial planets.

Interests and expertise (Subject groups)

Grants awarded

Atmospheres of alien worlds: spectroscopy of transiting exoplanets

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Dates: Oct 2015 - Sep 2020

Value: £453,198.67