PhD scholarship: Naked-Eye Stars and Their Planets


Enrolment status New students
Student type Domestic students
Level of study Higher Degree by Research
Study area Science and Mathematics
HDR funding type Living stipend scholarship
Scholarship value $28,597 per annum (2021 rate), indexed annually
Scholarship duration Three years with the possibility of two 6-month extensions
Opening date 11 May 2021
Closing date 21 June 2021


Supervisor – Dr Benjamin Pope

We now know that nearly all stars host planets, and exoplanet science is now turning to bright individual systems. We aim to study the nearest, brightest stars by extending the capabilities of NASA's TESS telescope and Queensland's Mount Kent Observatory. This is significant as the best chance we have to detect planets around stars bright enough to measure the planetary and stellar properties precisely. We will search for planets transiting nearby naked-eye stars, and make crucial measurements of the masses of these stars and planets.

On the TESS side of the project, we are interested in extending its capabilities to better study bright stars that saturate the camera - essentially, developing a 'high dynamic range' mode for a space telescope. The telescope was designed to look at thousands of faint stars, and the very brightest stars are overexposed and saturate the camera. With Dr Tim White from the University of Sydney, we have been using the technique of 'halo photometry' to recover precise light curves from K2 data and now moving on to TESS. There is a scattered light halo around the central dot of each star, from diffraction and reflection inside the telescope, covering hundreds of pixels. We build a light curve as a weighted sum of these, and optimize these weights to minimize noise in the final light curve (minimizing Total Variation by gradient descent). By borrowing these tools from machine learning we have been able to achieve remarkable results on K2 and look forward to extending these to new cases.

A second part of the project is using the Mount Kent Observatory, near Toowoomba, to measure the masses the brightest red giant stars in the sky. The Sun, like many other stars, rings like a bell, and its dominant note has a period of about 5 minutes. The turbulent motion of gas in the Sun couples to normal modes of acoustic oscillation and cause it to ring in a band of frequencies that are precisely diagnostic of conditions in the stellar interior. In order to study stars the whole sky, we want to conduct as few observations of each star as possible, while still getting enough to constrain their physics well - and as a consequence, we will typically only get sparse and irregularly-sampled time series of each star. Part of this project could therefore be to develop and apply statistical methods, such as Gaussian Processes, to doing asteroseismology with previously impossible datasets.

There are a wide range of directions possible in this project:

  • If you're interested in machine learning, you might like to work on data analysis algorithms to extract the best possible photometry or radial velocities, or to use these to infer stellar masses and planetary orbits.
  • If you want to do more classical astronomy, you can use our existing tools, find planets, characterize stars, and unravel the stories of our nearest and dearest stars.
  • If you want to work more hands on, there are opportunities to visit Mount Kent, collaborate with USQ people, and hopefully visit other observatories too.
  • We can take the methods we have developed in the context of TESS, and apply them to enhance the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest ever astronomical space mission. I am a co-investigator on three successful James Webb proposals, including one to study asteroids in the Solar System like Ceres which are too bright to study ordinarily with JWST. There is a great and open-ended scope for transferring ideas from this TESS project to JWST.

A working knowledge of Python, machine learning, and stellar and planetary physics would be of benefit to someone working on this project.


To be eligible, you must meet the entry requirements for a higher degree by research.

This scholarship is open to Australian citizens, permanent residents and International students who are currently in Australia at the time of application and commencement.

Applications are closed.

Before you get started

If this scholarship has rules, download and read them.

How to apply

To apply for admission and scholarship, follow this link. There is no separate application for scholarship because you will have the opportunity to request scholarship consideration on the application for admission.

Before submitting an application you should:

When you apply, please ensure that under the scholarships and collaborative study section you:

  1. Select ‘My higher degree is not collaborative’
  2. Select 'I am applying for, or have been awarded a scholarship or sponsorship'.
  3. Select ‘Other’, then ‘Research Project Scholarship’ and type in ‘STARS-POPE’ in the 'Name of scholarship' field.

See an example of what you have to do

Learn more about applying for a higher degree by research at UQ

Selection criteria

Applications will be judged on a competitive basis taking into account the applicant’s previous academic record, publication record, honours and awards, and employment history.

The applicant will demonstrate academic achievement in the field/s of astrophysics and the potential for scholastic success.

A background or knowledge of statistics and machine learning is highly desirable.

Applications are closed.


Dr Benjamin Pope
+61 (0) 439 730 708
Applications are closed.

Terms and conditions

Read the policy on UQ Research Scholarships.

A domestic part-time student with carer’s responsibilities, a medical condition or a disability, which prevents them from studying full time may be eligible for scholarship consideration, on a case by case basis.

Applications are closed.