Dr Nicholas James Rattenbury

PhD, The University of Auckland 2004

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Senior Lecturer


I am a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics. I completed my PhD in Physics at the University of Auckland and shortly thereafter left to do post-doctoral research at Jodrell Bank Observatory, The University of Manchester. After nearly five years of research, I worked for several years as a trainee patent attorney before returning to academia at Manchester Metropolitan University. As an Royal Society of New Zealand Rutherford Discovery Fellow, I returned to New Zealand to continue my research in astrophysics.

I am the Immediate Past President of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, the International Astronomical Union National Organising Committee Chair for New Zealand, the Science Lead for the Auckland Programme for Space Systems and a member of Te Punaha Atea Auckland Space Institute, and an executive member of Te Ao Mārama – Centre for Fundamental Inquiry at the University of Auckland.

Research | Current

Astronomy and Astrophysics

  • The discovery of extra-solar planets through gravitational microlensing
    • event modelling
    • microlensing space telescope mission concepts of operations 
  • Time domain astrophysics
  • Galactic structure

Space Systems Research

  • Free space optical communications for ground-space ground stations
  • Science Lead for the Auckland Programme for Space Systems
  • Plasma propulsion systems for small satellites
  • Synthetic Aperture Radar systems for nanosatellites
  • Nanosatellite sub-system design and development
  • Orbital dynamics

Computational Physics

  • Genetic algorithms, machine learning, autonomous systems
  • Virtual reality for high dimensional human-computer co-discovery
  • Graphical Processing Units for time series analysis and autonomous decision making

I am one of a team of University researchers working towards fostering the New Zealand space industry. My particular interest is in the development and use of nanosatellites to develop and test innovative satellite subsystems. Together with my colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering, we are developing new methods and antenna technologies to enable synthetic aperture radar observations from a nanosatellite platform. Our broader interests include developing optical communication and propulsion subsystems for nanosatellites. I also help guide our cross-disciplinary undergraduate student teams to design and develop space missions as part of our regular mission design competition, the Auckland Programme for Space Systems. I am also leading the design and construction of a satellite ground tracking station to monitor our satellite assets. 

My main astrophysics research interest is the detection of extra-solar planets through gravitational microlensing. This is where the gravitational field of a star - or a star and planetary system - deflects and distorts background light. We measure these distortions and infer the presence and characteristics of any planets in the "foreground" system of masses. Gravitational microlensing tends to detect planets cooler and further away from their host stars than those detected by other techniques. Discovering new planets via microlensing will help us figure out how planets form - which is still an open question.

I am specifically interested in creating alogrithms that can do the difficult task of analysing observed microlensing data without any human intervention. I am investigating how graphical processing units (GPUs) may be used to perform the intense numerical calculations necessary for modelling planetary microlensing events. In parallel with this, I am working to create "smart" algorithms that can - in real time - optimise their search strategy.

I am also interested in the general field of time-domain astrophysics, including the detection and analysis of transient events arising from gamma-ray bursts or other progenitors of gravitational waves.

Galaxy structure is another of my research interests. Working out the detailed structure of the inner part of our Galaxy will improve our understanding of how galaxies form in general. I am interested in improving the models of the inner galaxy, using the large amount of data collected from the microlensing databases.

Teaching | Current

ASTRO 100 - Planets, Stars and Galaxies

PHYSICS 356 - Particle Physics and Astrophysics

Postgraduate supervision

Alex Li (PhD, 2019) Eclipsing binaries in the MOA-II database

Félicien Filleul (PhD, 2018 -- present)

Darcey Graham (PhD, 2019 -- present)

Antonella Caldarelli (PhD, 2019 -- present)

Philpp Nieke (PhD, 2020 -- present)

Brandon Mumford (MSc, 2020 -- present)

Luke Ryley (MSc, 2020 -- present)

Ivan Koptev (MSc, 2021)

Gabor Popetti (MEngSt, 2021)

Martin Donachie (MSc, 2015)  Data Mining the MOA Catalogue Using Machine Learning Algorithms (PhD 2015 -- present)

Philip Evans (MSc, 2017) Reversible Jump MCMC for Microlensing Event Model Selection



President, Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand (2018-2021)

Chair, Professional Astronomers' Group

President, International Astronomical Union National Committee for Astronomy (New Zealand)


Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

As of 29 October 2020 there will be no automatic updating of 'selected publications and creative works' from Research Outputs. Please continue to keep your Research Outputs profile up to date.
  • Austin, A., Cater, J. E., & Rattenbury, N. J. (2019). Te Pūnaha Ātea visit to Germany, September 2019.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/49403
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: John Cater
  • Charles, C., Tsifakis, D., Bennet, A., Boswell, R., Braun, W., Rivas-Davila, J., ... Benidar, A. (2019). Lab to Launch. Paper presented at 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Washington, D.C., USA. 21 October - 25 October 2019. Related URL.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/48779
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: John Cater, Felicien Filleul
  • Filleul, F., Charles, C., Boswell, R., Rattenbury, N., Cater, J., & Sutherland, O. (2019). Radio Frequency Microdischarge Neutraliser. Paper presented at 36th International Electric Propulsion Conference, University of Vienna, Austria. 15 September - 20 September 2019. (pp. 16). Related URL.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/48782
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: John Cater, Felicien Filleul
  • Graham, D., Rattenbury, N. J., & Cater, J. E. (2019). Mission Feasibility from Trajectory Optimization and the State Of Space Systems Research at The University Of Auckland. Paper presented at AAS/AIAA Astrodynamics Specialist Conference. 11 August - 15 August 2019. Related URL.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/47826
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: John Cater, Darcey Graham
  • Hefkey, J., Rattenbury, N., & Cater, J. (2018). CubeSat education - Bigger than STEM. Proceedings of the International Astronautical Congress, IAC.
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: John Cater
  • Penny, M. T., Rattenbury, N. J., Gaudi, B. S., & Kerins, E. (2017). Predictions for the detection and characterization of a population of free-floating planets with K2 Campaign 9. Astronomical Journal, 153 (4)10.3847/1538-3881/aa61a1
  • Rattenbury, N. J., Bennett, D. P., Sumi, T., Koshimoto, N., Bond, I. A., Udalski, A., ... Dominik, M. (2017). Faint-source-star planetary microlensing: the discovery of the cold gas-giant planet OGLE-2014-BLG-0676Lb. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 466 (3), 2710-2717. 10.1093/mnras/stw3185
  • Snjegota, A., & Rattenbury, N. J. (2017). Detecting Forward-Scattered Radio Signals from Atmospheric Meteors Using Low-Cost Software Defined Radio. The Physics Teacher, 55 (2), 115-117. 10.1119/1.4974127


Contact details

Primary office location

Level 7, Room 719
New Zealand

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