Two researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute receive large ERC grants – Niels Bohr Institute - University of Copenhagen

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03 February 2015

Two researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute receive large ERC grants

ERC Grants

Two researchers in astrophysics - Sune Toft, associate professor at the Dark Cosmology Centre and Jes Jørgensen, associate professor in Astrophysics and Planetary Science have each received 15 million kroner (approx. 2 million euro) from the European Research Council’s Consolidator Grants.

Sune Toft, associate professor at the Dark Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute has received a grant of nearly 15 million kroner (approx. 2 million euro) from the ERC, for the research project ‘Connecting the Extreme’.

Sune Toft, associate professor at the Dark Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute has received a grant of nearly 15 million kroner (approx. 2 million euro) from the European Research Council, ERC, for the research project ‘Connecting the Extreme’.

“The technological advances of recent years have enabled us to study galaxies from the very early universe and this has revolutionised our understanding of the origins and evolution of the galaxies,” explains Sune Toft, who has played a central role in this new understanding.

He explains that they found galaxies from when the universe was only a few billion years old and these galaxies were extremely massive. The stars were compressed into a very small area, so the galaxies were only a third the size of large galaxies today and the density of the stars was more than 10 times as great. They wondered how the galaxies could have been so massive so early.

“My theory that galaxies with very special properties may have been involved in the formation process made me focus on the special SMG galaxies that are dominated by intense star formation hidden under a thick blanket of dust,” explains Sune Toft.

He explains that when such gas-rich galaxies merge, all of the gas is driven into the centre of the star-forming region and this means that there an explosion of new star formation and the galaxy quickly becomes very compact. But with the explosive star formation, the gas to form new stars is also used up extremely quickly and then you get a dead galaxy.

It is this research that Sune Toft will now continue to explore with the project, ‘Connecting the Extreme’. The project aims to explore the evolution of the most massive galaxies in the entire history of the universe by investigating whether there is a direct evolutionary link between the most extreme galactic phenomena we know of in the universe. From the most intensely star-forming galaxies in the early universe, through quasars, which are driven by super massive black holes and are the brightest sources in the universe, to ultra-compact dead galaxies, to the ‘sleeping’ giant elliptical galaxies in the local universe.

One result of the research will be a significantly improved understanding of the physical mechanisms that drives star formation in galaxies and shapes them. The ERC grant will run over five years and will mean the hiring of two postdocs and two PhDs to establish a research group.

Jes Jørgensen, associate professor in Astrophysics and Planetary Science at the Niels Bohr Institute has received a grant of nearly 15 million kroner (2 million euro) from the ERC, for the research project ‘Setting the Stage for Solar System Formation’.

Jes Jørgensen, associate professor in Astrophysics and Planetary Science at the Niels Bohr Institute has received a grant of nearly 15 million kroner (2 million euro) from the European Research Council, ERC, for the research project ‘Setting the Stage for Solar System Formation’.

A star forms when a huge cloud of gas and dust contracts due to gravity and the gas is finally so compact that the pressure heats the matter, creating a glowing gaseous ball – a new star is born. In the earliest stages, young stars are shrouded in dense, rotating clouds of dust and gas that eventually clump together and can form planets.

The dark clouds of dust and gas block visible light, but light in the infrared and radio wavelength regions are well suited for exploring the structure of the areas close to these newly formed stars, revealing the physical and chemical processes taking place.

Jes Jørgensen and his group use large radio telescopes like the ALMA telescopes in Chile to study such young solar system. In the disc of gas and dust around young, newly formed stars, they have previously found a glycolaldehyde molecule, which a simple form of sugar. This is one of the building blocks in the process leading towards the formation of RNA and is a first step towards biology. 

With the grant from the ERC, he, along with 3 new postdocs and 3 PhD students, will spend the next 5 years studying the chemistry in the earliest stages of a young star in relation to the physical structure and the evolution of the star and its surroundings. They will examine which complex organic molecules are present in the clouds surrounding young medium sized stars like our Sun and will look at what the chances are that complex organic molecules formed in these stages might be incorporated in later planetary system.

Sune Toft, Assistant Professor at Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, Universitety of Copenhagen, +45 35 32 59 08, sune@nbi.ku.dk

Jes Kristian Jørgensen, Assistant Professor at Astrophysics and Planetary Science, Niels Bohr Institute, Universitety of Copenhagen, +45 35 32 05 69, jeskj@nbi.dk