MSc Degree in Planetary Science

MSc 1 year full-time, 2 years part-time
Postgraduate Diploma (PgDip) 9 months full-time, 2 years part-time

Model of the interior of an icy moon. Credit : N. Achilleos
Model of the interior of an icy moon. Credit : N. Achilleos

Exploring Other Worlds Through An Interdisciplinary Curriculum

The MSc programme in Planetary Science has a curriculum which is drawn from a variety of academic departments within UCL, including Physics and Astronomy, Space and Climate Physics, Earth Sciences, and Physiology and Cell and Developmental Biology. The programme thus has a strong interdisciplinary flavour, in line with the ethos of the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck.

The combination of taught courses and project work allows prospective students to study a wide variety of topics related to planetary and space environments, such as: planetary interiors, atmospheres and magnetospheres; the impact of the space environment on human physiology and life; and the application of current knowledge to investigations of extrasolar planets - worlds in other stellar systems. 

For further information please refer to the Planetary Science Course Handbook for the 2012-2013 session.

The MSc programmes in Physics and Astrophysics aim to provide students with a sound knowledge of the underlying principles which form a thorough basis for careers in these and related fields, enable students to develop insights into the techniques used in current projects and allow an in-depth experience of a particular specialised research area. In addition they are meant to develop the professional skills for students to play a meaningful role in industrial or academic life, and give students the experience of teamwork, a chance to develop presentation skills and learn to work to deadlines.

The programmes include a number of lecture courses relevant to the discipline such as Planetary Atmospheres and Cosmology in the Astrophysics course, though some flexibility is built in so that courses can also be taken on topics removed from the immediate subject.

A research topic is included so that 50% of the marks are made up by completing an individual task.

Further information can be found in the UCL Graduate Prospectus and the Planetary Science Course Handbook 2012-2013. The handbook also provides detailed rules regarding module selections.

MSc (180 credits)

Core Modules 


Research Essay

Research Dissertation

3 courses must be chosen (45 credits) 3 courses must be chosen (45 credits) (30 credits)
(60 credits)

  • The remaining choice of core courses
An extended literature survey on a topic related to your research project.

Students start work on an Individual Project during the first term. This will involve attachment to any of the appropriate research groups within the Departments. For more information see

PgDip (120 credits)

Core Modules


Research Essay

3 courses must be chosen (45 credits) 3 courses must be chosen (45 credits) (30 credits)

  • The remaining choice of core courses


Some set topics for individual projects have been selected by potential supervisors, and lists will be available at the start of the first term. Alternatively students can suggest areas in which they are interested. It is, however, essential that the subject of the chosen project is relevant to the programme, and a willing supervisor is also required. Discussions with the MSc Tutor and potential supervisors start in October and a project title must be defined, and a supervisor appointed, by 31st October. Work begins in the first term, usually literature survey and related background work. Progress, plans and difficulties are outlined in an initial report due in the middle of the second term (see the Programme Calendar for the exact date). Assessment of the project is based mainly on the final report, but other components also contribute. It is important that students read and follow the individual project guidelines (a copy of which is included at the end of the handbook).

Research Groups

Astrophysics Group - Department of Physics and Astronomy) Department of Earth Sciences

Department of Space and Climate Physics (Mullard Space Science Laboratory)
ULO (University of London Observatory) An excellent facility for observational projects in planetary science and astronomy. Faculty of Life Sciences Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck


A list of currently available projects (by title) and their supervisors will be kept and updated here:

  • 'Modelling the Effect of the Solar Wind on the Structure of Saturn's Plasma Disc': This project is mainly theoretical, and aims to develop a simple numerical treatment of the 'shielding' magnetic field which arises from currents flowing at the boundary of Saturn's magnetosphere. For particular orientations of the planetary dipole, this 'shielding' field is expected to distort the planet's equatorial plasma sheet into a 'bowl-like' shape, as revealed by Cassini spacecraft observations. Knowledge of the Matlab package is an advantage, but time for learning 'the basics' will be allowed. Supervisors: Dr. Nicholas Achilleos (Physics and Astronomy) and Dr. Christopher Arridge (Mullard Space Science Laboratory - MSSL).
  • 'Projects in Geophysics': Please click on this link to find out more information, projects are offered by Dr. Carolina Lithgow-Bertelloni from UCL Earth Sciences.
  • 'Simulating cometary sodium tails': Comets have two main types of tail: the ion or plasma tail, composed of ions that have joined the solar wind flowing past the comet, and the dust tail, composed of solid particles accelerated away from the Sun by radiation pressure. There is a third type of tail, seen in only a few bright comets, that comprises neutral sodium atoms that are accelerated away from the Sun by radiation pressure. The strength of the anti-sunward force varies strongly as a function of the atoms' velocity component towards or away from the Sun. The project would involve the analysis of images of actual sodium tails, and the development of a computer simulation of the tails to attempt to reproduce their characteristics. Supervisor: Dr. Geraint Jones (MSSL).
  • 'Projects in Astrobiology / Radiation Hazard in Venusian Habitable Zone': This project will use computer modelling to assess the habitability of the Venusian clouds, an important question in planetary science and astrobiology. The radiation environment of Venus will be computed using a planetary cosmic radiation model called PLANETOCOSMICS (based on Geant4, a C++ particle transport code developed at CERN). The modelled radiation dose rates under different conditions will then be compared to the radiation resistance characteristics of appropriate thermo / acidophile microorganisms reported in the literature. To find out more about this project, or discuss related potential projects in planetary science and astrobiology, please contact Dr. Lewis Dartnell (UCL/MSSL).
  • 'ExoMol: Molecular line lists for exoplanet and other atmospheres': With the discovery that exoplanets are ubiquitous, the emphasis Has shifted to trying to characterise them. This is done by studying molecular spectra gives rise to a major demand for laboratory data. The ExoMol project, as funded by the European Research Council (ERC), aims to provide comprehensive data on the spectroscopy of all molecules which thought to be important components of exoplanet atmospheres. This will be done by constructing, testing (against laboratory experiment) and using appropriate theoretical models for each molecule. There are a number of openings for student projects in this area: calculating molecular cooling functions, partition functions, linelists for simple (diatomic) molecules and constructing tables of experimental energy levels. The student will join a team working on this problem. Supervisor: Prof. Jonathan Tennyson (Physics and Astronomy).
  • 'Characterising plasma periodicities in Saturn’s magnetosphere using data from the Cassini spacecraft': Saturn has the most symmetrical magnetic field of any planet in our solar system with a dipole tilted at less than 0.5 degrees to Saturn’s rotation axis. Based on this observation one shouldn’t see any significant periodicities in the plasma in Saturn’s magnetosphere as it rotates around the planet at up to 200 km/s. However, periodicities have been observed since the 1980s from the Pioneer 11 and Voyager 1/2 spacecraft, and most recently in extensive observations gathered by the Cassini spacecraft.

    This project focuses on characterising the periodicities in Saturn’s plasma using measurements made by the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS), part of which was built at UCL. Different datasets from CAPS will be processed and arranged to search for the presence of periodicities at particular periods. The identified periodicities will be interpreted and compared with the predictions of various published models. Data handling in Matlab or IDL will be required. Supervisor: Dr. Christopher Arridge (MSSL).

  • 'Slowing down the giant planets: modelling the diffusion of angular momentum in the magnetospheres of giant planets': The magnetospheres of Jupiter and Saturn rotate rapidly and display a range of physical processes as a consequence of this rotational motion. The rapid rotational motion of the magnetosphere is produced by transferring angular momentum from the planet to the magnetosphere, so slowing down the planet at the expense of speeding up the plasma in the magnetosphere. In this project the diffusion of angular momentum throughout the magnetospheres of Jupiter and Saturn will be explored theoretically using simple one-dimensional diffusion equations solved numerically and analytically and compared with data and other theoretical approaches. Computational work in Matlab will be required. Supervisor: Dr. Christopher Arridge (MSSL).

  • 'Electromagnetic sounding of the interiors of the moons of Uranus': There is evidence that the icy Galilean moons of Jupiter have liquid or partially-melted interior oceans where the interior is kept warm due to tidal interactions between Jupiter and the other Galilean moons. The rapid oscillation of Jupiter’s magnetic field near these moons provides a way to electromagnetically sound the interior – indeed this is one of the key pieces of evidence for the existence of these interior oceans. The icy moons of Uranus may also have interior oceans due to similar tidal heating. The electromagnetic environment of these moons is highly variable due to Uranus’ highly asymmetrical magnetic field, which makes the uranian system one of the best planetary systems in the solar system for investigating the electromagnetic induction signatures of icy moons. In this project a numerical model for these induction signatures will be constructed and applied to study the interiors of these uranian moons and to establish whether different oceans could be detectable by future space missions. Computational work will be carried out in Matlab, IDL, or other languages to suit the experience of the student. Supervisor: Dr Christopher Arridge (MSSL).


A minimum of a 2:1 Bachelor's degree in a relevant discipline from a UK university or an overseas qualification of an equivalent standard.


A minimum of a 2:2 Bachelor's degree in a relevant discipline from a UK university or an overseas qualification of an equivalent standard.

Non-UK university degrees:

For prospective entrants with non-UK university degrees, entry criteria will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Non native-English speakers will also need to provide a sufficient proof of proficiency in the English language as from the UCL admissions website (see notes for international applicants).

Information about Abbey Master's Scholarships can be found at the following website:

All students whose first language is not English must be able to provide recent evidence that their spoken and written command of the English language is adequate for the programmes for which they have applied. This requirement is specified in order to ensure that the academic progress of students is not hindered by language difficulties and that students are able to integrate socially while studying at UCL and living in the UK.

Further details can be found at


Can be made online or by downloading a form in pdf format at


2 August

Students are advised to apply as early as possible due to competition for places. Those applying for scholarship funding (particularly overseas applicants) should take note of application deadlines

Postal Address

MSc Programme Tutor
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University College London
United Kingdom