Professor Michael Burton is the Director of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium. This brings together running the oldest continuously active observatory in the UK and Ireland with its longest operating planetarium. It is a job that embraces fundamental research, education, public outreach, history, heritage and culture within a single organisation.
My academic career includes significant periods in the USA (NASA, Mauna Kea Observatory), Australia (Anglo Australian Observatory, University of New South Wales), Chile (Universidad de Chile, Chajnantor Observatory), Antarctica (South Pole and the high Antarctic Plateau), as well as Ireland (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) and the UK (Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, the Royal Greenwich Observatory and Armagh).
I am an astronomer, with primary research expertise in the formation of stars within the molecular clouds of our Galaxy, and an educator, with 25 years university-level teaching (including Director of Teaching in Physics in a large university), combined together with an active involvement in science communication and outreach.
Of my contributions to service in my discipline, I am currently President of the largest Division of the International Astronomical Union (Division B – Facilities, Technology, Data Science).
I was the Editor of the Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales for 5 years – one of the oldest peer reviewed publications in the Southern Hemisphere.
I am a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of Australia, the Australian Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of New South Wales.
My research centres around the study of the molecular clouds within the interstellar medium of our Galaxy. Stars form within this environment, leading to the excitation of these clouds and resulting primarily in long-wavelength radiation with can be measured with telescopes. My research makes uses the tools of infrared and millimetre-wave radio astronomy to study these molecular clouds, measuring the spectral signatures arising from the gas and dust in interstellar molecular clouds.
The primary telescopes used for this research are the Mopra millimetre telescope in Coonabarabran in New South Wales in Australia, and the Nanten2 sub-millimetre telescope on the 5,000m elevation Altiplano of Chile.
I lead a programme to map the distribution of the molecular clouds along the southern Galactic Plane with the Mopra telescope, charting the distribution and dynamics and the gas through the emission from the CO molecule. Covering over 250 square degrees, with an angular resolution of 0.6 arcminutes and a spectral resolution of 0.1 km/s, in 3 isotopologues (CO, 13CO, C18O) of the fundamental J=1-0 line emitted at 2.6mm, this work is providing us with a new panorama of the most active medium of our Galaxy.
Astronomy in Antarctica
My research led me early in my career to Antarctica, where the extremely cold and dry air provides the best infrared and sub-millimetre observing conditions on the Earth. I have been actively involved in the development of Antarctic astronomy since 1990, leading science experiments site testing the Antarctic high plateau as an astronomical site and pioneering measurements in the infrared and THz wavebands. I chaired the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group for the Development of Antarctic Astronomy for two decades and organised the first-ever IAU Symposium in the field, in Beijing in China in 2012.