I’ve always had a long standing interest in the planetary sciences. For my B.A. dissertation project I worked on the magnetic properties of Martian soil analogues and also a fragment of the Chassigny meteorite, which actually came from Mars, and for my M.Sc. I modeled the impact cometary dust loading could have on Earth’s climate. Whilst based in the US I (happily!) served on several review panels for NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division and that experience in particular fired my imagination to follow up several observational programmes of my own. I was also inspired by the testimony of the former NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden Jnr, who before a Senate Subcommittee in 2015 stated "Essentially, our core mission from the very beginning has been to investigate and explore space and the Earth environment, and to help us make this place a better place" to start working in the Earth Observation sciences.

Planetary Lightning

One of the great - yet not widely known - successes of NASA’s Voyager mission has been the Plasma Wave System instruments (PWS) both of which detected electrostatic activity in the atmospheres of the giant planets. The subsequent Cassini mission unequivocally detected multiple lightning events associated with collosal storms in Saturn’s atmosphere, at intensities and radio wavelength’s capable of being detected on Earth using low frequency radio telescope arrays - which it duly was using the UTR-2 telescope in Ukraine. In 2014 using ground based adaptive optics, enormous storm activity was detected on Uranus, and that motivated my interest in using the LWA radio telescope to try and detect and study planetary lightning on Saturn, Uranus and Venus. There’s a lot of data still to crunch!

Left: Ground-based images in the NIR of Uranus using the Keck Observatories, corrected for atmospheric turbulence via adaptive optics, showing the storms of 2014 - the largest August 6th storm is bigger than Earth in scale. Right: The Great Storm of 2010 on Saturn as observed optically & in the radio from the Cassini orbiter

Comets and Planetary Dust Debris

Comets really are ‘starry messengers’ being basically time capsules from an earlier era in the solar system’s formation, giving us clues from their activity, orbital and rotational parameters. Some of the more interesting comets are those that are currently masquerading as asteroids, and that on occasion, ‘flare up’, providing us with an intriguing link between both classes of planetary objects. I’ve been interested in serendipitously observing passing comets using space-based observatories such as NASA’s Kepler/K2 and the Neil Gehrel’s Swift Observatory to study their rotational properties and cometary activity, to fill out the picture we have of their kinematic properties. I’ve also recently got interested in the topic of pulsar planets - are they survivor’s of the original supernova that forms the pulsar, are they ‘picked up’ by the passing pulsar or does the pulsar itself create its own planets from the interstellar dust and gas it scoops up as it skittles through the galaxy. The best way to tell is to see if their is an excess thermal signature from dust debris around a given pulsar, and I hope to use the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope later this year to test this hypothesis.

Left: Comet Siding Spring moves across NASA K2's Campaign 2 field of view in October 2014 - K2, formerly Kepler, was staring at the region of the sky where the constellation Scorpius is located at the time. Each square 'module' is about the size of the full moon. Right: The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope at Maunakea Observatories in Hawai'i.

Earth Observation Science

In the summer of 2017 my friend and colleague Dr. Conor Delaney invited me to sit on a seminar he was giving on the NUI Galway campus to the M.Sc. in Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security class on how easy it’s becoming to access and use Earth Observation data to help solve problems in these areas. I was totally hooked, particularly as to me it was just like using an orbiting space observatory, except pointing towards Earth (this analogy drives some people crazy but whatever). Since then I have got involved in three separate EO projects, all funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, in various capacities but all involving the use and analysis of freely available remote sensing data to (i) monitor freshwater/coastal water quality (2017-W-MS-30: Remote Sensing of Irish Surface Waters), (ii) characterise changes in Irish groundwater from gravitational anomalies (2018-W-DS-33: GRACE Monitoring of Groundwater over Ireland), and (iii) to monitor the status of Irish kelp forests (2018-W-MS-35: The Diversity and Resilience of Kelp Ecosystems in Ireland), all from orbit.

Left: The Gearagh, Co. Cork taken by the European Commission's Sentinel 2 remote sensing satellite at the start & middle of the summer of 2018 - the increase of chlorophyll levels is clearly evident. Right: Scuba diving at the edge of one of the many kelp forests off the coast of Connemara, Co. Galway, July 2019.