P. T. O'Brien

University of Leicester, Leiscester, England, United Kingdom

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Publications (569)1768.45 Total impact

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    ABSTRACT: Tidal forces close to massive black holes can violently disrupt stars that make a close approach. These extreme events are discovered via bright X-ray and optical/UV flares in galactic centers. Prior studies based on modeling decaying flux trends have been able to estimate broad properties, such as the mass accretion rate. Here we report the detection of flows of highly ionized X-ray gas in high-resolution X-ray spectra of a nearby tidal disruption event. Variability within the absorption-dominated spectra indicates that the gas is relatively close to the black hole. Narrow line widths indicate that the gas does not stretch over a large range of radii, giving a low volume filling factor. Modest outflow speeds of a few hundred kilometers per second are observed, significantly below the escape speed from the radius set by variability. The gas flow is consistent with a rotating wind from the inner, super-Eddington region of a nascent accretion disk, or with a filament of disrupted stellar gas near to the apocenter of an elliptical orbit. Flows of this sort are predicted by fundamental analytical theory and more recent numerical simulations.
    Preview · Article · Oct 2015 · Nature
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    ABSTRACT: We present late-time multi-wavelength observations of Swift J1644+57, suggested to be a relativistic tidal disruption flare (TDF). Our observations extend to >4 years from discovery, and show that 1.4 years after outburst the relativistic jet switched-off on a timescale less than tens of days, corresponding to a power-law decay faster than $t^{-70}$. Beyond this point weak X-rays continue to be detected at an approximately constant luminosity of $L_X \sim 5 \times 10^{42}$ erg s$^{-1}$, and are marginally inconsistent with a continuing decay of $t^{-5/3}$, similar to that seen prior to the switch-off. Host photometry enables us to infer a black hole mass of $M_{BH}=3 \times 10^6$ M$_{\odot}$, consistent with the late time X-ray luminosity arising from sub-Eddington accretion onto the black hole in the form of either an unusually optically faint AGN or a slowly varying phase of the transient. Optical/IR observations show a clear bump in the light curve at timescales of 30-50 days, with a peak magnitude (corrected for host galaxy extinction) of $M_R \sim -22-23$. The luminosity of the bump is significantly higher than seen in other, non-relativistic TDFs and does not match any re-brightening seen at X-ray or radio wavelengths. Its luminosity, light curve shape and spectrum are broadly similar to those seen in superluminous SNe, although subject to large uncertainties in the correction of the significant host extinction. We discuss these observations in the context of both TDF and massive star origins for Swift J1644+5734 and other candidate relativistic tidal flares.
    No preview · Article · Sep 2015
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    ABSTRACT: Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the most energetic and exotic events in the Universe, however their behaviour at the highest energies (>10 GeV) is largely unknown. Although the Fermi-LAT space telescope has detected several GRBs in this energy range, it is limited by the relatively small collection area of the instrument. The H.E.S.S. experiment has now entered its second phase by adding a fifth telescope of 600 m$^{2}$ mirror area to the centre of the array. This new telescope increases the energy range of the array, allowing it to probe the sub-100 GeV range while maintaining the large collection area of ground based gamma-ray observatories, essential to probing short-term variability at these energies. We will present a description of the GRB observation scheme used by the H.E.S.S. experiment, summarising the behaviour and performance of the rapid GRB repointing system, the conditions under which potential GRB repointings are made and the data analysis scheme used for these observations.
    No preview · Article · Sep 2015
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    ABSTRACT: List of contributions from the CTA Consortium presented at the 34th International Cosmic Ray Conference, 30 July - 6 August 2015, The Hague, The Netherlands.
    Full-text · Article · Aug 2015
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    ABSTRACT: We present the Micro-channel X-ray Telescope (MXT), a new narrow-field (about 1{\deg}) telescope that will be flying on the Sino-French SVOM mission dedicated to Gamma-Ray Burst science, scheduled for launch in 2021. MXT is based on square micro pore optics (MPOs), coupled with a low noise CCD. The optics are based on a "Lobster Eye" design, while the CCD is a focal plane detector similar to the type developed for the seven eROSITA telescopes. MXT is a compact and light (<35 kg) telescope with a 1 m focal length, and it will provide an effective area of about 45 cmsq on axis at 1 keV. The MXT PSF is expected to be better than 4.2 arc min (FWHM) ensuring a localization accuracy of the afterglows of the SVOM GRBs to better than 1 arc min (90\% c.l. with no systematics) provided MXT data are collected within 5 minutes after the trigger. The MXT sensitivity will be adequate to detect the afterglows for almost all the SVOM GRBs as well as to perform observations of non-GRB astrophysical objects. These performances are fully adapted to the SVOM science goals, and prove that small and light telescopes can be used for future small X-ray missions.
    Full-text · Article · Jul 2015
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    ABSTRACT: Einstein Probe is a small mission dedicated to time-domain high-energy astrophysics. Its primary goals are to discover high-energy transients and to monitor variable objects in the $0.5-4~$keV X-rays, at higher sensitivity by one order of magnitude than those of the ones currently in orbit. Its wide-field imaging capability, featuring a large instantaneous field-of-view ($60^\circ \times60^\circ$, $\sim1.1$sr), is achieved by using established technology of micro-pore (MPO) lobster-eye optics, thereby offering unprecedentedly high sensitivity and large Grasp. To complement this powerful monitoring ability, it also carries a narrow-field, sensitive follow-up X-ray telescope based on the same MPO technology to perform follow-up observations of newly-discovered transients. Public transient alerts will be downlinked rapidly, so as to trigger multi-wavelength follow-up observations from the world-wide community. Over three of its 97-minute orbits almost the entire night sky will be sampled, with cadences ranging from 5 to 25 times per day. The scientific objectives of the mission are: to discover otherwise quiescent black holes over all astrophysical mass scales by detecting their rare X-ray transient flares, particularly tidal disruption of stars by massive black holes at galactic centers; to detect and precisely locate the electromagnetic sources of gravitational-wave transients; to carry out systematic surveys of X-ray transients and characterize the variability of X-ray sources. Einstein Probe has been selected as a candidate mission of priority (no further selection needed) in the Space Science Programme of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, aiming for launch around 2020.
    Preview · Article · Jun 2015
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    ABSTRACT: One of the most exciting near-term prospects in physics is the potential discovery of gravitational waves by the advanced LIGO and Virgo detectors. To maximise both the confidence of the detection and the science return, it is essential to identify an electromagnetic counterpart. This is not trivial, as the events are expected to be poorly localised, particularly in the near-term, with error regions covering hundreds or even thousands of square degrees. In this paper we discuss the prospects for finding an X-ray counterpart to a gravitational wave trigger with the Swift X-ray Telescope, using the assumption that the trigger is caused by a binary neutron star merger which also produces a short gamma-ray burst. We show that it is beneficial to target galaxies within the GW error region, highlighting the need for substantially complete galaxy catalogues out to distances of 300 Mpc. We also show that nearby, on-axis short GRBs are either extremely rare, or are systematically less luminous than those detected to date. We consider the prospects for detecting afterglow emission from an an off-axis GRB which triggered the GW facilities, finding that the detectability, and the best time to look, are strongly dependent on the characteristics of the burst such as circumburst density and our viewing angle.
    Preview · Article · Jun 2015 · Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
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    ABSTRACT: The evolution of galaxies is connected to the growth of supermassive black holes in their centers. During the quasar phase, a huge luminosity is released as matter falls onto the black hole, and radiation-driven winds can transfer most of this energy back to the host galaxy. Over five different epochs, we detected the signatures of a nearly spherical stream of highly ionized gas in the broadband x-ray spectra of the luminous quasar PDS 456. This persistent wind is expelled at relativistic speeds from the inner accretion disk, and its wide aperture suggests an effective coupling with the ambient gas. The outflow's kinetic power larger than 10(46) ergs per second is enough to provide the feedback required by models of black hole and host galaxy coevolution. Copyright © 2015, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2015 · Science
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    ABSTRACT: Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) are a powerful probe of the high-redshift Universe. We present a tool to estimate the detection rate of high-z GRBs by a generic detector with defined energy band and sensitivity. We base this on a population model that reproduces the observed properties of GRBs detected by Swift, Fermi and CGRO in the hard X-ray and γ-ray bands. We provide the expected cumulative distributions of the flux and fluence of simulated GRBs in different energy bands. We show that scintillator detectors, operating at relatively high energies (e.g. tens of keV to the MeV), can detect only the most luminous GRBs at high redshifts due to the link between the peak spectral energy and the luminosity (Epeak–Liso) of GRBs. We show that the best strategy for catching the largest number of high-z bursts is to go softer (e.g. in the soft X-ray band) but with a very high sensitivity. For instance, an imaging soft X-ray detector operating in the 0.2–5 keV energy band reaching a sensitivity, corresponding to a fluence, of ∼10−8 erg cm−2 is expected to detect ≈40 GRBs yr−1 sr−1 at z ≥ 5 (≈3 GRBs yr−1 sr−1 at z ≥ 10). Once high-z GRBs are detected the principal issue is to secure their redshift. To this aim we estimate their NIR afterglow flux at relatively early times and evaluate the effectiveness of following them up and construct usable samples of events with any forthcoming GRB mission dedicated to explore the high-z Universe.
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2015 · Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
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    ABSTRACT: ${\it Swift}$ J2058.4+0516 (Sw J2058+05, hereafter) has been suggested as the second member (after Sw J1644+57) of the rare class of tidal disruption events accompanied by relativistic ejecta. Here we report a multiwavelength (X-ray, ultraviolet/optical/infrared, radio) analysis of Sw J2058+05 from 3 months to 3 yr post-discovery in order to study its properties and compare its behavior with that of Sw J1644+57. Our main results are as follows. (1) The long-term X-ray light curve of Sw J2058+05 shows a remarkably similar trend to that of Sw J1644+57. After a prolonged power-law decay, the X-ray flux drops off rapidly by a factor of $\gtrsim 160$ within a span of $\Delta$$t$/$t$ $\le$ 0.95. Associating this sudden decline with the transition from super-Eddington to sub-Eddington accretion, we estimate the black hole mass to be in the range of $10^{4-6}$ M$_{\odot}$. (2) We detect rapid ($\lesssim 500$ s) X-ray variability before the dropoff, suggesting that, even at late times, the X-rays originate from close to the black hole (ruling out a forward-shock origin). (3) We confirm using ${\it HST}$ and VLBA astrometry that the location of the source coincides with the galaxy's center to within $\lesssim 400$ pc (in projection). (4) We modeled Sw J2058+05's ultraviolet/optical/infrared spectral energy distribution with a single-temperature blackbody and find that while the radius remains more or less constant at a value of $63.4 \pm 4.5$ AU ($\sim 10^{15}$ cm) at all times during the outburst, the blackbody temperature drops significantly from $\sim$ 30,000 K at early times to a value of $\sim$ 15,000 K at late times (before the X-ray dropoff). Our results strengthen Sw J2058+05's interpretation as a tidal disruption event similar to Sw J1644+57. For such systems, we suggest the rapid X-ray dropoff as a diagnostic for black hole mass.
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2015 · The Astrophysical Journal
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    ABSTRACT: This is a White Paper in support of the mission concept of the Large Observatory for X-ray Timing (LOFT), proposed as a medium-sized ESA mission. We discuss the potential of LOFT for the study of gamma-ray bursts. For a summary, we refer to the paper.
    Full-text · Article · Jan 2015
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    ABSTRACT: The magnetar model has been proposed to explain the apparent energy injection in the X-ray light curves of short gamma-ray bursts (SGRBs), but its implications across the full broadband spectrum are not well explored. We investigate the broadband modelling of four SGRBs with evidence for energy injection in their X-ray light curves, applying a physically motivated model in which a newly-formed magnetar injects energy into a forward shock as it loses angular momentum along open field lines. By performing an order of magnitude search for the underlying physical parameters in the blast wave, we constrain the characteristic break frequencies of the synchrotron spectrum against their manifestations in the available multi-wavelength observations for each burst. The application of the magnetar energy injection profile restricts the succesful matches to a limited family of models that are self-consistent within the magnetic dipole spin-down framework. Because of this, we are able to produce synthetic light curves that describe how the radio signatures of these SGRBs ought to have looked at a variety of frequencies, given the restrictions imposed by the available data. We discuss the detectability of these signatures in the context of present day and near future radio telescopes. Our results show that previous observations were not deep enough to place meaningful constraints on the model, but that both ALMA and the upgraded VLA are now sensitive enough to detect the radio signature within two weeks of trigger in most SGRBs, assuming our sample is representative of the population as a whole. We also find that the upcoming Square Kilometer Array will be sensitive to depths greater than those of our lower limit predictions.
    Full-text · Article · Nov 2014 · Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
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    ABSTRACT: We present the Microchannel X-ray Telescope, a new light and compact focussing telescope that will be flying on the Sino-French SVOM mission dedicated to Gamma-Ray Burst science. The MXT design is based on the coupling of square pore micro-channel plates with a low noise pnCCD. MXT will provide an effective area of about 50 cmsq, and its point spread function is expected to be better than 3.7 arc min (FWHM) on axis. The estimated sensitivity is adequate to detect all the afterglows of the SVOM GRBs, and to localize them to better then 60 arc sec after five minutes of observation.
    Full-text · Article · Jul 2014 · Proceedings of SPIE - The International Society for Optical Engineering
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    ABSTRACT: An intrinsic correlation has been identified between the luminosity and duration of plateaus in the X-ray afterglows of Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs; Dainotti et al. 2008), suggesting a central engine origin. The magnetar central engine model predicts an observable plateau phase, with plateau durations and luminosities being determined by the magnetic fields and spin periods of the newly formed magnetar. This paper analytically shows that the magnetar central engine model can explain, within the 1$\sigma$ uncertainties, the correlation between plateau luminosity and duration. The observed scatter in the correlation most likely originates in the spread of initial spin periods of the newly formed magnetar and provides an estimate of the maximum spin period of ~35 ms (assuming a constant mass, efficiency and beaming across the GRB sample). Additionally, by combining the observed data and simulations, we show that the magnetar emission is most likely narrowly beamed and has $\lesssim$20% efficiency in conversion of rotational energy from the magnetar into the observed plateau luminosity. The beaming angles and efficiencies obtained by this method are fully consistent with both predicted and observed values. We find that Short GRBs and Short GRBs with Extended Emission lie on the same correlation but are statistically inconsistent with being drawn from the same distribution as Long GRBs, this is consistent with them having a wider beaming angle than Long GRBs.
    Full-text · Article · Jul 2014 · Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
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    ABSTRACT: The long gamma-ray burst (GRB) 100621A, at the time the brightest X-ray transient ever detected by Swift-XRT in the $0.3\textrm{--}10$ keV range, has been observed with the H.E.S.S. imaging air Cherenkov telescope array, sensitive to gamma radiation in the very-high-energy (VHE, $>100$ GeV) regime. Due to its relatively small redshift of $z\sim0.5$, the favourable position in the southern sky and the relatively short follow-up time ($<700 \rm{s}$ after the satellite trigger) of the H.E.S.S. observations, this GRB could be within the sensitivity reach of the H.E.S.S. instrument. The analysis of the H.E.S.S. data shows no indication of emission and yields an integral flux upper limit above $\sim$380 GeV of $4.2\times10^{-12} \rm cm^{-2}s^{-1}$ (95 % confidence level), assuming a simple Band function extension model. A comparison to a spectral-temporal model, normalised to the prompt flux at sub-MeV energies, constraints the existence of a temporally extended and strong additional hard power law, as has been observed in the other bright X-ray GRB 130427A. A comparison between the H.E.S.S. upper limit and the contemporaneous energy output in X-rays constrains the ratio between the X-ray and VHE gamma-ray fluxes to be greater than 0.4. This value is an important quantity for modelling the afterglow and can constrain leptonic emission scenarios, where leptons are responsible for the X-ray emission and might produce VHE gamma rays.
    Full-text · Article · May 2014 · Astronomy and Astrophysics
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    ABSTRACT: Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are most probably powered by collimated relativistic outflows (jets) from accreting black holes at cosmological distances. Bright afterglows are produced when the outflow collides with the ambient medium. Afterglow polarization directly probes the magnetic properties of the jet when measured minutes after the burst, and it probes the geometric properties of the jet and the ambient medium when measured hours to days after the burst. High values of optical polarization detected minutes after the burst of GRB 120308A indicate the presence of large-scale ordered magnetic fields originating from the central engine (the power source of the GRB). Theoretical models predict low degrees of linear polarization and no circular polarization at late times, when the energy in the original ejecta is quickly transferred to the ambient medium and propagates farther into the medium as a blast wave. Here we report the detection of circularly polarized light in the afterglow of GRB 121024A, measured 0.15 days after the burst. We show that the circular polarization is intrinsic to the afterglow and unlikely to be produced by dust scattering or plasma propagation effects. A possible explanation is to invoke anisotropic (rather than the commonly assumed isotropic) electron pitch-angle distributions, and we suggest that new models are required to produce the complex microphysics of realistic shocks in relativistic jets.
    Full-text · Article · Apr 2014 · Nature
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    ABSTRACT: The first gravitational-wave (GW) observations will greatly benefit from the detection of coincident electromagnetic counterparts. Electromagnetic follow-ups will nevertheless be challenging for GWs with poorly reconstructed directions. GW source localization can be inefficient (i) if only two GW observatories are in operation; (ii) if the detectors’ sensitivities are highly non-uniform; (iii) for events near the detectors’ horizon distance. For these events, follow-up observations will need to cover 100–1000 deg−2 of the sky over a limited period of time, reducing the list of suitable telescopes. We demonstrate that the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) will be capable of following up GW event candidates over the required large sky area with sufficient sensitivity to detect short gamma-ray bursts, which are thought to originate from compact binary mergers, out to the horizon distance of advanced LIGO/Virgo. CTA can therefore be invaluable starting with the first multimessenger detections, even with poorly reconstructed GW source directions. This scenario also provides a further scientific incentive for GW observatories to further decrease the delay of their event reconstruction.
    Full-text · Article · Mar 2014 · Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
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    ABSTRACT: GRB~130925A was an unusual GRB, consisting of 3 distinct episodes of high-energy emission spanning $\sim$20 ks, making it a member of the proposed category of `ultra-long' bursts. It was also unusual in that its late-time X-ray emission observed by \swift\ was very soft, and showed a strong hard-to-soft spectral evolution with time. This evolution, rarely seen in GRB afterglows, can be well modelled as the dust-scattered echo of the prompt emission, with stringent limits on the contribution from the normal afterglow (i.e. external shock) emission. We consider and reject the possibility that GRB~130925A was some form of tidal disruption event, and instead show that if the circumburst density around GRB~130925A is low, the long duration of the burst and faint external shock emission are naturally explained. Indeed, we suggest that the ultra-long GRBs as a class can be explained as those with low circumburst densities, such that the deceleration time (at which point the material ejected from the nascent black hole is decelerated by the circumburst medium) is $\sim$20 ks, as opposed to a few hundred seconds for the normal long GRBs.
    Full-text · Article · Mar 2014 · Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
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    ABSTRACT: We present evidence for the rapid variability of the high-velocity iron K-shell absorption in the nearby (z = 0.184) quasar PDS 456. From a recent long Suzaku observation in 2013 (~1 Ms effective duration), we find that the equivalent width of iron K absorption increases by a factor of ~5 during the observation, increasing from <105 eV within the first 100 ks of the observation, toward a maximum depth of ~500 eV near the end. The implied outflow velocity of ~0.25 c is consistent with that claimed from earlier (2007, 2011) Suzaku observations. The absorption varies on timescales as short as ~1 week. We show that this variability can be equally well attributed to either (1) an increase in column density, plausibly associated with a clumpy time-variable outflow, or (2) the decreasing ionization of a smooth homogeneous outflow which is in photo-ionization equilibrium with the local photon field. The variability allows a direct measure of absorber location, which is constrained to within r = 200-3500 r g of the black hole. Even in the most conservative case, the kinetic power of the outflow is 6% of the Eddington luminosity, with a mass outflow rate in excess of ~40% of the Eddington accretion rate. The wind momentum rate is directly equivalent to the Eddington momentum rate which suggests that the flow may have been accelerated by continuum scattering during an episode of Eddington-limited accretion.
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2014 · The Astrophysical Journal
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    ABSTRACT: A significant proportion (∼30 per cent) of the short-duration gamma-ray bursts (SGRBs) localized by Swift have no detected host galaxy coincident with the burst location to deep limits, and also no high-likelihood association with proximate galaxies on the sky. These SGRBs may represent a population at moderately high redshifts (z ≳ 1), for which the hosts are faint, or a population where the progenitor has been kicked far from its host or is sited in an outlying globular cluster. We consider the afterglow and host observations of three ‘hostless’ bursts (GRBs 090305A, 091109B and 111020A), coupled with a new observational diagnostic to aid the association of SGRBs with putative host galaxies to investigate this issue. Considering the well localized SGRB sample, 7/25 SGRBs can be classified as ‘hostless’ by our diagnostic. Statistically, however, the proximity of these seven SGRBs to nearby galaxies is higher than is seen for random positions on the sky. This suggests that the majority of ‘hostless’ SGRBs have likely been kicked from proximate galaxies at moderate redshift. Though this result still suggests only a small proportion of SGRBs will be within the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory horizon for neutron star–neutron star (NS) or neutron star–black hole (BH) inspiral detection (z ∼ 0.1), in the particular case of GRB 111020A a plausible host candidate is at z = 0.02.
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2014 · Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Publication Stats

11k Citations
1,768.45 Total Impact Points

Institutions

  • 1997-2015
    • University of Leicester
      • Department of Physics and Astronomy
      Leiscester, England, United Kingdom
  • 2014
    • University of Leeds
      • School of Physics and Astronomy
      Leeds, England, United Kingdom
    • Keele University
      • School of Physical and Geographical Sciences
      Newcastle-under-Lyme, England, United Kingdom
  • 2012
    • Università degli Studi di Trieste
      Trst, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy
  • 2008
    • Università degli Studi di Palermo
      Palermo, Sicily, Italy
    • Pennsylvania State University
      • Department of Physics
      University Park, Maryland, United States
  • 2007
    • The University of Warwick
      • Department of Physics
      Coventry, England, United Kingdom
  • 2004
    • Leicester College
      Leiscester, England, United Kingdom
  • 2000
    • The Astronomical Observatory of Brera
      Merate, Lombardy, Italy
  • 1996
    • University of Toronto
      Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 1995
    • University of Milan
      Milano, Lombardy, Italy
  • 1988-1995
    • University College London
      • • Department of Physics and Astronomy
      • • Department of Space and Climate Physics
      Londinium, England, United Kingdom
  • 1994
    • Observatoire de Paris
      Lutetia Parisorum, Île-de-France, France