In Space and Planetary Physics, we study the physics of space plasmas, from the Sun, through interplanetary space to the atmospheres of Earth, other planets, their rings and moons.
Our research probes the fundamental physics that underpins the space environment of the Solar System. We also conduct planetary physics research that investigates the interiors, origins and evolution of solar system bodies. To carry out this research, we use state of the art instrumentation on a variety of spacecraft located around the solar system, from the Hubble Space Telescope at Earth, to MAVEN at Mars, and Cassini at Saturn. We are also involved in future space missions, including missions to Jupiter such as the Juno mission (arriving 2016) and the European Space Agency’s JUICE mission to Jupiter coming in 2030, and in developing ideas for future space missions. Our observational work is complemented with computer modelling using a range of models, from bespoke software to internationally-developed numerical models.
Our research into Earth's space environment uses a range of ground- and space-based instrumentation. Measurements by the Cluster, THEMIS and MMS spacecraft allow us to probe the solar-terrestrial interaction in situ. Observations by ground-based magnetometers and ionospheric radars such as the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN) provide an invaluable remote sensing capability. As part of this effort, Lancaster space physicists develop and deploy state-of-the-art experiments in the UK and inside the Arctic and Antarctic circles.”
We research space weather to investigate the mechanisms by which the Sun controls near-Earth space to understand better the risks posed to high-tech infrastructure both on and above the surface of our planet. We also run the AuroraWatch service which provides forecasts of displays of the northern lights over the UK.
- Space Weather
- Aurorae on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn
- Structure and dynamics of giant planet magnetospheres
- Electrodynamics of magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling
- Thermospheric changes due to space weather and climate change
- Dusty plasmas in the atmosphere and on planets and moons
- Non-linear plasma physics in the ionosphere
- Scientific planning for future planetary science missions
Opportunities & PhD Projects
We welcome enquiries from researchers who are interested in moving advanced fellowships to Lancaster, or who are in the early stages of preparing a fellowship application and would like to apply for this at Lancaster. We also warmly encourage applications from candidates wanting to pursue a PhD in Space and Planetary Physics.
We advise potential applicants to contact Professor Jim Wild as early as possible so that the applications process can proceed smoothly and successfully. The list below contains a non-exhaustive set of fellowship opportunities that are available for research in the areas of science covered by the Space and Planetary Physics group. Many of the deadlines can change from year-to-year, so we strongly advise checking the funders' website for the current deadline dates and further details.
- STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellowship [deadline September each year]
- Royal Astronomical Society Research Fellowship [deadline October each year]
- Royal Astronomical Society Daphne Jackson Fellowship [rolling applications process]
- Royal Astronomical Society Norman Lockyer Fellowship
- Royal Society University Research Fellowship [deadline: October each year]
- Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship [deadline: November each year]
- Royal Society Newton International Fellowship
- UKSA Aurora Fellowships [calls open occasionally]
- Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship [deadline: September each year]
- Royal Commission for the Exhibition 1851 Fellowship [deadline: February each year]
- Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship [deadline: March each year]
We encourage applications from excellent candidates wanting to pursue a PhD in Space and Planetary Physics.
Below is a list of PhD projects currently being offered in the Space and Planetary Physics Group. Interested candidates should contact the project supervisor (indicated below) for further information. For general information about PhD studies in Physics at Lancaster please contact our postgraduate admissions staff at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also apply directly at lancaster.ac.uk/physics/study/phd/ stating the title of the project and the name of the supervisor in your application. Applicants are normally expected to have the equivalent of a first (1) or upper second class (2.1) degree in Physics, Astrophysics or a related discipline.
Solar wind driving of the magnetosphere
Professor Jim Wild
Magnetospheric dynamics at Earth are primarily driven by coupling between the magnetised solar wind and the magnetospheric magnetic field and plasma. This coupling is highly variable and strongly controlled by the relative orientation of the interplanetary and magnetospheric magnetic fields.
Many studies have revealed that the magnetosphere has a non-linear response to solar wind drivers. During periods of enhanced solar wind driving, magnetospheric activity ceases to increase in line with increasing driving conditions, an effect known as “saturation”. Several physical mechanisms for this effect have been proposed, but no consensus has been reached over the cause. Recently, it has also been suggested that the saturation effect is not real, but an artefact of uncertainties in the propagation of upstream measurements from the L1 position (the gravitational equilibrium position located on the Sun-Earth line, approximately 1.5 million kilometres upstream of the Earth). It is also noted that the magnetospheric response to solar wind drivers observed at L1 can be highly variable. Sometimes a given set of driving conditions results in significantly higher levels of magnetospheric activity than at other times. The reasons for this are not wholly understood, but some of the variability is likely to be caused by uncertainties in the propagation of upstream measurements from L1 to the Earth leading the wrong solar wind driving conditions to be associated with the observed magnetospheric response.
In this project, the student shall exploit measurements made by the ESA Cluster spacecraft, to confirm or discount the non-linear response of the system to interplanetary drivers. The 20+ year Cluster dataset is the product of decades of UKRI/UKSA investment and represents an invaluable scientific resource. Cluster measurements in the solar wind and magnetosheath (within 20 RE of the Earth) will enable the student to examine driver/response relationships in more detail and with less uncertainly than has previously been possible.
As a PhD student in Lancaster’s Space and Planetary Physics (SPP) group you will conduct cutting-edge research in the company of world-leading scientists. You will develop and exploit skills in computer-based data analysis and interpretation of satellite data products. To facilitate this will receive a programme of training in the scientific and technical background required to conduct your research, and in the written and oral presentation skills required to disseminate your results to the international scientific community and general audiences. Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK honours Degree at 2:1 level or equivalent in a subject such as Physics or Geophysics.
Dynamics of the Earth’s Magnetosphere
Professor Adrian Grocott
Magnetospheric dynamics involves the study of the dynamic behaviour of, and processes that occur within, the Earth's magnetosphere. This fascinating field of research encompasses a wide range of phenomena, including the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field, the formation and dynamics of the magnetopause, the generation of geomagnetic storms and substorms, magnetic reconnection events, and the effects of space weather on the magnetosphere. Studying for a PhD at the nexus of space and ground-based observations, you will use a variety of observational and theoretical tools to unravel the complex nature of the plasma flows within Earth's magnetosphere, contributing to our broader understanding of space physics and its impact on our planet. You will explore the dynamic interplay between Earth and space using a synergistic approach, combining satellite data with ground-based observations. As part of this innovative research endeavour, you will have access to cutting-edge observations, collaborate with leading experts, and contribute to advancing our comprehension of the fundamental forces shaping Earth's space environment. If you possess a passion for space physics, geophysics or related fields, seize this opportunity to expand the frontiers of space science at one of the leading physics departments in the country.
The successful candidate should hold a minimum of a UK MPhys Degree at 2:1 level or equivalent in a Physics-based subject. The candidate is expected to successfully work as part of a team, and to complete research suitable for the award of a PhD in Physics, including publications in high-impact peer-reviewed journals.
Please contact Professor Adrian Grocott for further information.
X-Ray Signatures from the Uranian Magnetosheath
Dr Licia Ray
Soft x-rays are emitted when highly stripped solar wind ions interact with neutrals in the local space environment. Planetary magnetosheaths, the boundary layers between a planet’s magnetopause and bow shock, are rife with such interactions. In this project, you will characterise Uranus’s magnetosheath x-ray signature.
This fascinating problem has many aspects to consider. First, the abundance of neutral material in Uranus’s local environment is not well understood, with the moon source rates based on the Voyager fly-by. Furthermore, Uranus’s magnetic field is offset and tilted with respect to the planet’s spin axis, with the planet tilted nearly 90 degrees with respect to the ecliptic. The orbiting moons, and any neutral material they emit, rotate in the equatorial plane. This means that the orientation of the solar wind and magnetosheath with respect to neutral clouds with vary with season. The cusps are likely to present interesting flow channels that may enhance emission.
This work is highly topical due to interest in ice giant orbiters. One goal would be to test the viability of an x-ray imager at outer planet systems with later stages of the work extending the study to the Neptunian system. Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK honours degree at 2:1 level or equivalent in a Physics-related subject. Candidates are expected to successfully work as part of a team and to complete research suitable for award of a PhD in Physics. Comfort with coding is beneficial.
The coupling between planetary atmosphere and magnetospheres
Dr Licia Ray
The interaction between a planet’s ionosphere, thermosphere, and magnetosphere is highly complex. Angular momentum and energy are exchanged between the three regions through a variety of processes, all mediated by the magnetic field. This project is broad with the applicant encouraged to explore the aspect of the magnetosphere-ionosphere-thermosphere system that is most interesting to them. Possible routes forward are:
- Exploring the coupling between Jupiter’s mid-latitude regions – The thermosphere above Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS) indicates that the atmosphere is warmer than the local surroundings. One possible cause for this heating is joule heating associated with GRS flows forcing the upper atmosphere. Is it possible for the GRS to drive conjugate heating in the northern hemisphere? To what extent can conjugate heating explain the higher than expected temperatures in Jupiter’s thermosphere?
- Investigating particle acceleration above Jupiter’s atmosphere – Analyse output from a numerical model of particle acceleration above Jupiter’s atmosphere to determine how electric field siphon ionospheric particles outwards as well as channelling magnetospheric particles into the atmosphere.
This work is highly topical as Juno is currently in orbit at Jupiter. A successful project would compare model output to the most recent mission results. Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK honours degree at 2:1 level or equivalent in a Physics-related subject. Candidates are expected to successfully work as part of a team and to complete research suitable for award of a PhD in Physics. Comfort with coding is beneficial.
The Space and Planetary Physics group runs training workshops throughout the year that are dedicated to postgraduate students and also accessible to MPhys students who are doing their final year projects in the group. These workshops cover subject-specific and more general research skills.
The form and content of these workshops are determined through dialogue with PhD students so that the most effective training can be provided. These workshops are based on the needs of the SPP students but are also available to other postgraduate students. Postdoctoral researchers are also invited to attend these workshops in order not only to allow postgraduate students to benefit from the experience of our postdocs but also to provide further training opportunities for postdocs.
Additional training is offered by the Faculty of Science and Technology, ISS, and the Library. Our students also have the opportunity to participate in departmental outreach training and to develop their presentation skills via participation in the departmental outreach programme.
The group runs a fortnightly group meeting where recent research from students, postdocs and academics is presented and discussed. We also have a regular seminar programme with external speakers. Current research is also discussed in regular smaller informal discussions over tea and coffee. These are focused in research themes and we currently run "Gas Giant Gossip" and "Rocky Planet Roundup". Other academics also lead small discussions on more focused topics with their research students.