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Planetary Science

The Planetary Science Group at MSSL is a leading research group studying planetary systems across the Solar System and beyond. Our science themes are planetary magnetospheres, moon interactions, surfaces and comets. We produce scientific instruments for international space exploration missions, such as the Cassini mission to Saturn, and then analyse the information which comes back from those instruments. We are analysing data from some of the Solar System's most interesting scientific targets, including Saturn and its moons Titan, Enceladus and Rhea, Mars, Venus and comets. The group is also heavily involved in future missions to Mars, Jupiter and other Solar System bodies. Previous missions include Beagle 2 and the Giotto mission to comets Halley and Grigg-Skjellerup. We work closely with the MSSL Space Plasma Physics and Imaging groups and the UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy, and are part of the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck.


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News

TGO liftoff

Liftoff to Mars!

On 14 March, the first mission of the ESA-Russia ExoMars programme began its journey to Mars from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Soaring over the steppes of Kazakhstan, the Proton rocket and Briz upper stage both performed flawlessly, putting the first of the two ExoMars missions on course for Mars with arrival in October 2016. This opens a new era of European-Russian Mars exploration – with UCL-MSSL and UCL's Centre for Planetary Sciences (CPS) playing key roles.
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Artistic rendering of Jupiter's magnetosphere (credit: JAXA)

Solar storms trigger Jupiter's 'Northern Light'

Solar storms trigger Jupiter’s intense ‘Northern Lights’ by generating a new X-ray aurora that is eight times brighter than normal and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s aurora borealis, finds new UCL-led research using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
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Artist's Impression of Giotto and Comet Halley (source: ESA)

Giotto at Halley: 30 years ago!

It was the year of the tragic Challenger disaster – but UCL-MSSL was making good news in space and making history too. The Giotto spacecraft carried 10 instruments, including one led by UCL-MSSL just 596 km (MSSL to ESOC distance!) from comet Halley on the night of 13th/14th March, with some spectacular results.
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Saturn

Saturn and Enceladus produce the same amount of plasma

The first evidence that Saturn’s upper atmosphere may, when buffeted by the solar wind, emit the same total amount of mass per second into its magnetosphere as its moon, Enceladus, has been found by UCL scientists working on the Cassini mission. More...

ExoMars Rover (courtesy of ESA)

UCL's ExoMars PanCam kit one step closer to Mars

The UCL-made ‘structural-thermal model’ of the ExoMars PanCam instrument for the joint ESA-Roscosmos (Russian space agency) 2018 rover mission leaves UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) today for Airbus UK in Stevenage. This is the first of several steps on the way to Mars - in 2016, UCL will deliver engineering- and flight models. The flight model will be the actual instrument which travels to Mars where it will identify promising targets for the mission.
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Science Nuggets

Saturn's largest moon Titan (Credit: NASA/JPL/U. Arizona)

Titan's leaking atmosphere

Saturn’s enigmatic moon Titan is of special interest to scientists due to many of its Earth-like features such as lakes, a methane cycle similar to the water (hydrological) cycle on Earth and large organic molecules in its atmosphere. Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere and it is larger than the planet Mercury. More...

Illustration of plasma production in Saturn's inner magnetosphere.

Mapping Saturn's magnetosphere

When walking or driving somewhere new most people would take a map or a GPS device to find their way around. Planetary scientists usually make maps of the surfaces of planetary bodies to understand surface features. For the most part, the magnetospheres (space environments) of the planets are invisible. We have to use instruments that detect particles and magnetic fields to find our way around, like using senses of taste, smell and touch to understand where we are inside a magnetosphere. More...

Image of Saturn's icy moon Dione. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Dione's thin oxygen exosphere

Dione is a moon of Saturn, discovered in 1684 by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini. Over 300 years later, planetary scientists including Andrew Coates and Geraint Jones from MSSL-UCL, have discovered that Dione has a weak exosphere near its surface (at planets with denser atmospheres, the exosphere is the outermost layer of its atmosphere). This exosphere is very very thin, about a million billionth of the Earth's atmospheric density. The work shows that the exosphere contains molecular oxygen - the same form of oxygen as in Earth's atmosphere. This gives us important information about how the atmosphere is produced. More...

Image of the Crab Nebula. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope/NASA

Counting electrons in space

Space isn't really a empty. In reality it's filled with particles that can be measured by instruments on spacecraft. But there aren't that many of them so special techniques need to be used to work out the density and temperature of the particles surrounding the planets, and our spacecraft.
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Electrified ice from Saturn's moon Enceladus

During the Cassini spacecraft’s first encounter with Saturn’s 500km-wide moon Enceladus, clear indications were detected by the spacecraft’s magnetometer that the way that this body was interacting with Saturn’s magnetosphere was highly unusual. Further observations in 2005 showed that the moon was expelling gas and dust from its south polar region.
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Page last modified on 04 nov 14 12:37