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Daisuke Kawata
d.kawata AT

Philippa Elwell
p.elwell AT


2018 STFC-supported PhD projects in Astrophysics and Space Science at MSSL, UCL 

The following 3 PhD projects are available for the STFC-supported PhD studentship (3.5 year) at MSSL, UCL. The application deadline is 10 June 2018, but the applications are open till the positions are filled. We strongly encourage the applicants to email the prospective supervisor(s) and discuss about the project before they make the application. More general information of this studentship, including How to apply, can be found here

A Study of Magnetars – the Most Magnetic Neutron Stars

Supervisor: Prof. Silvia Zane (s.zane [AT]

Neutron stars (NSs), the end points of massive stars, are the most magnetic objects in the Universe. The project will study a unique type of NSs – magnetars. Their ultra-strong magnetic field (1E14–1E15 G) makes them unique laboratories to test fundamental physics under conditions not reproducible on Earth. We propose two interrelated projects. Firstly, a fascinating question to answer is: can magnetars explain a mysterious astronomical source, called the Ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs)? ULXs have X-ray luminosities 100 times higher than that allowed by accretion onto a stellar- mass remnant. A NS with an ultra-strong magnetic field as that of a magnetar is one of the most promising mechanisms to explain ULXs. To critically test the poorly understood scenario, the project will build the first detailed NS accretion model with a multipolar magnetic field, and compare the simulated results with observations. A second study investigates how magnetars’ extreme environment can produce intense X-ray/γ-ray bursts, whose origin is still hotly debated. The project will make use of multivariable analysis, a statistical method that has not been applied before to classify observed bursts by their properties (duration, decay time, etc). These statistical properties will be compared with theoretical prediction, leading the way of quantitatively testing the origin of magnetar bursts. 

Desired knowledges and skills

Undergraduate in astrophysics. Strong computational background and high energy astrophysics, radiative transfer. Astrophysical background in neutron stars (isolated or binaries).  

Preparing for the Solar Orbiter Mission: Studies of the Links between the Sun and the Solar Wind Charged Particle Populations

Supervisors: Prof. Chris Owen (c.owen [AT] and Prof. Louise Harra (l.harra [AT]

UCL/MSSL is both the Principal Investigator (PI) Institute on an international consortium providing the Solar Wind Analyser suite (SWA) of instruments and co-PI Institute and science lead on the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) for the ESA Solar Orbiter mission.  The mission will likely be launched in Feb 2020. SWA will sample electron, proton, alpha particle and heavy ion populations at various distances down to 0.28 AU from the Sun (i.e. around a quarter the distance from the Sun to the Earth). In particular, UCL/MSSL has designed and built the electron analyser system (EAS) for the SWA suite.  EUI consists of a suite of imaging telescopes to observe the solar atmosphere. EUI will allow us, on one hand, to determine the global structure of the solar corona and, on the other hand, to provide a crucial understanding of fine scale processes in the dynamic solar atmosphere. Images taken by the Full Sun Imager (FSI) of the EUI suite will offer the indispensable link between the solar surface and the outer corona, which ultimately shapes the characteristics of the interplanetary medium to be sampled in situ by Solar Orbiter.

Solar Orbiter

In order to prepare for the mission, we would like to undertake studies of the nature of the links between the Sun and the solar wind using, where relevant, data from existing in-orbit missions.  Such mission-relevant projects could perhaps specifically address the links between the heavy ion measurements in the solar wind and the measurements of the Sun itself available from EUI and the spectroscopic telescopes.  Establishing such links between the SWA measurements of ion composition and the remote sensing measurements of the Sun has been identified as critical for the success of the Solar Orbiter mission.  Thus learning what can be done now, with existing datasets, will be invaluable during the post-launch analysis phase.  Such a project would benefit from the ready collaboration possible with researchers already in the UCL/MSSL Solar Physics and Space Plasma Physics research group which possesses expertise in analysis of the remotely sensed and in situ observations respectively.

Many potential projects fall within this category and so a potential tailoring to the specific background and interests of a research student are possible.  As an example of the kind of linkage science envisioned here, a student might undertake studies of both the global drivers and local properties of interplanetary shocks.  Shocks and other wave fronts may be driven through the solar wind by many forms of solar activity (for example, CME eruption, co-rotting interaction regions).  Such activity is a prime target for EUI, while the results of this, the shock fronts themselves, will be captured in unprecedented detail by SWA and other in situ instruments as the pass the spacecraft.  Thus linking the properties and nature of the shock to the properties of the various drivers encompasses a number of potential studies that could be done with the combined Solar Orbiter observations, and much preparatory work can be undertaking with existing data assets.

The results of such projects are critical as preparation and inputs into the ESA Solar Orbiter program, and the student will thus also be an integral part of the MSSL science-planning teams, with the responsibility of making scientific inputs to those processes. There will also be opportunity to collaborate with our partners in Europe and the USA.  This project will also place the student in a good position to collaborate more generally and find future positions within the Solar Orbiter community internationally. 

Desired knowledges and skills

Undergraduate degree in physics or closely related topic.

Strong computational skills.

Analysing Comets’ Dust and Ion Tails With LSST 

Supervisor: Dr. Geraint Jones (g.h.jones [AT]

The 6.7m Large Synoptic Survey Telescope – LSST – is currently under construction in Chile ( ). When in full operation, its 3.2 billion pixel camera will take over 800 wide angle images each night, covering 10 square degrees. The entire visible sky will be imaged twice each week. Geraint Jones has an affiliate PI role on the project, with responsibilities for analysing the expected wealth of information on the dust and ion tails of comets imaged by the telescope. The analysis will use important adaptations of two existing sets of code to provide valuable and ground-breaking data on comets’ dust and ion tails from the bounty of scientific data that LSST will provide. One program suite will be used for the analysis of ion tails, and the other for the detailed analysis of dust tails. The aims of these are as follows: Ion tails: The speed of the solar wind – a continuous, fast flow of plasma from the Sun – controls the orientations of ion tails. Comets can therefore provide point measurements of wind speed, complementing in situ spacecraft data. LSST’s sensitivity will allow the detection of much fainter tails than possible without dedicated professional telescope time, & over great angular distances, including tails originating outside the camera’s field of view. When in full operation, LSST tail positions will be routinely & rapidly analysed for active comets, providing tens of thousands of measurements which will be extremely valuable for solar & heliospheric science as they allow 3D tracing of dynamic wind structures. Dust tails: Cometary dust grain trajectories are primarily influenced by gravity & radiation pressure. Our existing comprehensive model will be applied to observed comets to interpret tail orientations. The results are anticipated to result in valuable information on comets’ nucleus activity, dust fragmentation, & the mass/charge ratios of grains from Lorentz force effects. 

The PhD project will involve the conversion of the ion tail analysis code from IDL to Python, and its application to existing and new comet image data. The development of routines to extract comet images from the LSST data for analysis by both sets of code will also be needed. The dust tail model is already written in Python, but will need some adaptation. Prior to the arrival of LSST data, the comet analysis codes will be tested and applied to the untapped wealth of existing and new comet images obtained by space-based observatories, professional and amateur observers to prepare for LSST operations, and to generate results that will be valuable in themselves. The LSST project has very ambitious plans for Solar System data release ( ). Once in full operation, the results of the ion tail analysis will be made public as soon as possible for the wider scientific community to use. During the final year of the PhD project, LSST will be providing scientific data, and the student will analyse those images. The student will compare the results of their analysis of LSST and other observations to other sources, e.g. observations and models of the solar wind, will publish the results in journals, and publicize them at international conferences, in collaboration with colleagues at other institutions.

Desired knowledges and skills

Undergraduate degree in astronomy, astrophysics, physics, or another closely-related field.

Good computational skills.

LSST Comet

Page last modified on 01 jun 18 18:56