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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Comet 67P and Lithium release comparison. From Coates et al. (2015)

Ions from Comet 67P – early Rosetta results and increasing activity

As a comet nears the Sun, its icy nucleus heats, and neutral water and other gas molecules sublime, carrying ice and dust grains away also. The gas ionizes in sunlight, producing pickup ions. In a new paper, Andrew Coates and colleagues look at the early pickup process at 67P using data from the Rosetta Plasma Consortium (RPC) particle instruments. They compare the results to what was learned with the AMPTE and Giotto missions 30 years ago. The trajectory of Rosetta, the first spacecraft to fly with a comet at different distances to the Sun, is ideal for this. They discuss an elegant momentum balance seen between the new-born pickup ions and the solar wind. More...


Planetary group student organises Sample Space Science Week at MSSL for sixth formers



Titan's atmosphere even more Earth-like than previously thought

Scientists at UCL have observed how a widespread polar wind is driving gas from the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. The team analysed data gathered over seven years by the NASA/ESA Cassini probe, and found that the interactions between Titan’s atmosphere, and the solar magnetic field and radiation, create a wind of hydrocarbons and nitriles being blown away from the top of its atmosphere into space. This is very similar to the wind observed coming from the Earth’s polar regions. More...

Artist's view of Venus, a planet with no magnetic shelter

Venus is slowly losing its atmosphere

Two new papers on ionospheric photoelectrons in the tail of Venus are about to be published in Planetary and Space Science, led by UCL-MSSL scientists. They show that Venus is losing 300kg of its atmosphere per day. More...

Planetary Space Weather

In an article just published in Astronomy and Astrophysics Reviews, Jean Lilensten (IPAG, Grenoble), Andrew Coates (UCL-MSSL) and co-authors discuss the emergence of a new interdisciplinary topic - planetary space weather. More...

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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.

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.

Page last modified on 04 nov 14 12:37