Lancaster space researchers receive £1.8M to study planetary environments

Jupiter © Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Tanya Oleksuik CC BY NC SA 3.0
NASA's Juno spacecraft captured this view of Jupiter during the mission's 54th close flyby of the giant planet on 7 Sept 2023. The colourful zones and belts in Jupiter's atmosphere run from the cloud tops down to approximately 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers).

A team of academics and researchers from the Physics Department’s Space and Planetary Physics group will be supported by four research grants from the UKRI– totalling £1.8M - to explore the diverse planetary environments of Earth, Jupiter and Saturn.

Although very different in many respects, all three planets possess strong magnetic fields that exert powerful influences over their surrounding space environments. Three projects supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council will focus on the physical mechanisms that influence the flow of energy and material within these planets’ magnetospheres - the regions of space surrounding each planet that are dominated by the planetary magnetic field.

One project will use spacecraft data to look at the cloud of material produced by Saturn's icy moons and rings, and how this interacts with the electrically charged particles moving along Saturn's magnetic field. Another will model the conditions within Jupiter that drive positively-charged ions out of the planet’s atmosphere and study how this outflow is connected to the plasma dynamics of the surrounding space environment. The final project funded by STFC will exploit data from Earth-orbiting satellites to study how energy flows from the solar wind and into the terrestrial space environment.

Dr Joe Kinrade, the Research Co-Investigator of the Saturn project said: “Saturn's iconic rings and many moons mean that the environment around the planet is very different to the terrestrial magnetosphere. Interactions between hot ions within Saturn’s magnetosphere and water-based material from the icy moon Enceladus produce energetic neutral atoms (ENAs). We’re able to detect these ENAs using a camera onboard the Cassini satellite, allowing us to essentially image previously invisible global-scale dynamics in a giant plasma laboratory. Cryovolcanic activity on Enceladus is known to change over time, and we will investigate how this time-varying source of material affects Saturn’s inner magnetosphere.”

Dr Licia Ray, who is leading the Jupiter investigation said: “Jupiter’s magnetosphere is the largest structure in the solar system, but many of the processes that control it are poorly understood. The amount of mass loss from Jupiter’s atmosphere into the surrounding plasma environment is currently unknown. Our research will quantify how the leakage of the charged ions is governed by day-night cycles, auroral activity, Jupiter’s planetary magnetic field and driving from the solar wind, helping us better understand this giant planet’s complex dynamics.”

A fourth project, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, will study how Earth’s electromagnetic connection to the magnetosphere can drive electrical currents through the earth’s crust and into railway signalling infrastructure.

Professor Jim Wild, who is leading this project said: “Extreme geomagnetic disturbances, often referred to as ‘space weather’, have the potential to interfere with the critical infrastructure our society and economy rely on. Our research will help quantify some of the risks and identify which regions of the UK are most at risk.”

“We’re thrilled by the award of these UKRI grants. They highlight the quality of space and planetary physics research at Lancaster University, with investigations spanning the solar system, including curiosity-driven research and projects with real-world impact.”

All four projects commence on 1st April 2024.

Award details

Funded by the Science & Technology Facilities Council:

  • Plasma-neutral interactions at Saturn, Principal Investigator: Dr Sarah Badman, Researcher Co-Investigator: Dr Joe Kinrade [grant ref: ST/Y002393/1].
  • Ionospheric Outflow at Jupiter, Principal Investigator: Dr Licia Ray, Co-Investigator: Professor Nick Achilleos (University College London) [grant ref: ST/Y002148/1].
  • Resolving uncertainty in the solar wind driving of the magnetosphere: Principal Investigator: Professor Jim Wild, Co-Investigator: Professor Adrian Grocott [grant ref: ST/Y002040/1].

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council:

  • Modelling the impact of geomagnetically induced currents on UK railways, Professor Jim Wild, Researcher Co-Investigator: Dr Cameron Patterson [NE/Y001133/1].
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