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Staff Record
Photo of Michael Burton

Michael Burton


+61(2) 9385 5618


+61(2) 9385 6060



Physics / Higher Physics 1A – PHYS1121 / PHYS1131

Astrophysics - the Interstellar Medium – PHYS3170

Computational Physics – PHYS3610

Physical Science Fundamentals – IEST7300


  • B.A., M.A., M.Maths. Cambridge,
  • Ph.D. Edinburgh.

Research Interests: 

My research centres around the study of how stars form and the evolution of the interstellar medium in which they are embedded.  It primarily uses the tools of infrared and millimetre-wave astronomy, seeking the spectral signatures emitted by the gas and dust in the molecular clouds that cradle the stellar nurseries in order to probe this dynamic environment.

The aim is to answer a longstanding question in astrophysics: how does the life cycle of the interstellar medium operate, in particular how do the clouds of gas form within it, from which stars are then born?  This cycle of matter between the stars and gas drives our Galaxy’s evolution and determines its future form.

The cycle can be examined by following the Galactic carbon trail – measuring the element carbon emitting from its three principal forms in ionized, atomic or molecular gas in the interstellar medium  – as it transforms between phases within gas clouds, as these clouds are themselves formed and dissipated during the gas's journey through the life cycle.

This task is being accomplished this task using novel telescopes, in Australia, in Chile and in Antarctica, which allow the distribution and kinematics of carbon in its principal forms to be charted across the southern Galactic plane.  To do so involves opening new windows into space in the terahertz portion of the spectrum, using a remarkable new telescope we have deployed to the very summit of the Antarctic plateau – the HEAT telescope at Ridge A.  This is the driest location on the surface of our planet and the only place where the atmosphere routinely transmits radiation at terahertz frequencies.

Combined with corresponding data of the molecular form of carbon from the Mopra telescope in Australia, and the atomic form of carbon with Nanten2 telescope on the altiplano of Chile, we are engaged in a quest to follow the Galactic carbon trail, and so discover where and how gas clouds are formed in space.

See http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/mopraco/ for more details and some pretty pictures!

Honours, Awards and Memberships: 

Selected Publications: 

  • Burton, M.G., Geballe, T.R., Brand, P.W.J.L. & Webster, A.S., ‘Shocked molecular hydrogen in the supernova remnant IC443’, 1988. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 231, 617-634.

First extended (~1° scale) map to be made of H2 line emission.  First H2 map of a supernova remnant.  Source found to be most luminous H2 source in the Galaxy.

  • Burton, M.G., Hollenbach, D.J. & Tielens, A.G.G.M., ‘Line emission from clumpy photodissociation regions’, 1990. Astrophysical Journal, 365, 620-639.

Predictions for line emission from dense molecular clouds illuminated by far-UV radiation, in particular for the molecular emission from H2 and CO lines.

  • Burton, M.G., Hollenbach, D.J. & Tielens, A.G.G.M., ‘Mid-infrared rotational line emission from interstellar molecular hydrogen’, 1992. Astrophysical Journal, 399, 563-572.

Predictions for (as then undetected) H2 line emission from pure rotational lines from both shocks and photodissociation regions, which are produced in the mid-infrared portion of the spectrum.

  • Burton, M.G., ‘The excitation of molecular clouds and the emission from molecular hydrogen’, 1992. Australian Journal of Physics, 45, 463-485.

Now a standard review describing the processes by which molecular hydrogen is excited and how its spectrum and line profiles may be interpreted.

  • Allen, D.A. & Burton, M.G., ‘Explosive ejection associated with star formation in Orion’, 1993. Nature, 363, 54-56.

Discovery of the “fingers” in Orion, indicating an explosive event had occurred within the past 1,000 years in the nearest massive star forming region.  Made the front cover of Nature. (206 citations)

  • Burton, M.G. & Haas, M.R, 1997, Pure-rotational molecular hydrogen emission from Orion,  A. & A., 327, 309-316.

First observations of shocked H2 line emission at 17µm, confirming earlier predictions.

  • Walsh, A.J., Burton, M.G., Hyland, A.R. & Robinson, G., ‘Studies of Ultracompact HII regions – II.  High resolution radio continuum and methanol maser survey’, 1998. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 301, 640-698.

Paper 2 of two key papers with my first PhD student.  Discovery of “isolated” methanol masers; i.e. masers without any other source of emission apparent nearby, interpreted as signposting earlier stages of massive star than then known.  Third highest cited paper resulting from the ATCA telescope.

  • Burton, M.G., Ashley, M.C.B., Marks, R.D., Schinckel, A.E., Storey, J.W.V., Fowler, A., Merrill, M., Sharp, N., Gatley, I., Harper, A., Loewenstein, R., Mrozek, F., Jackson, J. & Kraemer, K., 2000, High resolution imaging of photodissociation regions in NGC 6334, Ap. J., 542, 359-366.

First thermal infrared astronomy from Antarctica.  Discovery of extensive cloud of organic molecules (PAH emission) connected with star formation complex.

  • Burton, M.G., Londish, D. & Brand, P.W.J.L., 2002, Formation pumping of molecular hydrogen in the Messier 17 photodissociation region, M.N.R.A.S. 33, 721-729.

Discovery of new emission mechanism for H2: formation pumping from newly formed molecules.

  • ‘Star Formation at High Angular Resolution', 2004. International Astronomical Union Symposium No. 221, held during the XXV General Assembly of the IAU, Sydney Convention Centre, July 22-25, 2003.  Editors Michael Burton, Ray Jayawardhana & Tyler Bourke, 513 pages.

IAU Symposium oganised on Star Formation

  •  Hill, T., Burton, M.G., Minier, V., Thompson, M., Walsh, A., Cunningham, M & Garay, G., ‘Millimetre continuum observations of southern massive star formation regions–I. SIMBA observations of cold cores’, 2005. Monthly Notices Royal Astronomical Society, 363, 405-451.

Paper with my PhD student identifying what we termed “millimetre-only” sources, a new class of object at the birth of massive stars, prior to the onset of methanol maser emission.

Burton, M.G., Lawrence, J., Ashley, M.C.B., Bailey, J.A., Blake, C., Bedding, T.R., Bland-Hawthorn, J., Bond, I.A., Glazebrook, K., Hidas, M.G., Lewis, G., Longmore, S.N., Maddison, S.T., Mattila, S., Minier, V., Ryder, S.D., Sharp, R., Smith, C.H., Storey, J.W.V., Tinney, C.G., Tuthill, P., Walsh, A.J., Walsh, W., Whiting, M., Wong, T., Woods, D. & Yock, P.C.M., ‘Science programs for a 2m-class telescope at Dome C, Antarctica: PILOT, the Pathfinder for an International Large Optical Telescope', 2005. Pub. Ast. Soc. Australia., 22, 199-235.

The science case for an infrared telescope on the Antarctic plateau.

  • Burton, M.G., ‘Astronomy in Antarctica’, 2010. The Astronomy & Astrophysics Review, 18, 417-469.

Definitive review of the field of Astronomy in Antarctica.

Astrophysics from Antarctica, 2013. International Astronomical Union Symposium No. 288, held during the XXVIII General Assembly of the IAU, Beijing, China, August 21-25, 2013. Editors Michael Burton, Xiangqun Cui and Nicholas Tothill

First IAU Symposium held in the field of astronomy in Antarctica

  • Burton, M.G., Braiding, C., Glueck, C., Goldsmith, P., Hawkes, J., Hollenbach, D.J., Kulesa, C., Martin, C.L., Pineda, J.L., Rowell, G., Simon, R., Stark, A.A., Stutzki, J., Tothill, N.J.H., Urquhart, J.S., Walker, C., Walsh, A.J. & Wolfire, M., ‘The Mopra Southern Galactic Plane CO Survey’, 2013. Publications Astronomical Society Australia, 30, id.e044 (28pp).

Description and rational of the Mopra Galactic Plane CO survey -  panoramic mapping of the molecular gas across the 4th quadrant of the Galaxy – with an order of magntiude  higher resolution than any previous work.

  • Burton, M.G., Ashley, M.C.B., Braiding, C., Storey, J.W.V., Kulesa, C., Hollenbach. D., Wolfire, M., Glueck, C. & Rowell, G., ‘The carbon inventory in a quiescent, filamentary molecular cloud in G328’, 2014. Astrophysical Journal, 782, 72.

Discovery of a molecular cloud apparently in the process of formation from the atomic substrate.  First demonstration of terahertz-imaging from the Antarctic plateau.


A comprehensive listing of my publications can be found via the UNSW Research Gateway.