UCL Department of Space and Climate Physics


STFC PhD Projects 2022

Available PhD projects in astrophysics, space plasma and solar physics of our STFC studentships 2022 are listed below.

Our STFC studentships starting in September 2022 are open for the application for the following research projects until 31st January 2022.  

 For more information on the application process, please visit the UCL Graduate Degrees pages and read the "guidelines for research programmes" carefully. To apply, please visit the Online Application page, select department of "Space & Climate Physics" and programme type of "Postgraduate Research". After pushing "Search Now" button, select "RRDSPSSING01: Research Degree: Space and Climate Physics" for Full-time or Part-time mode.

Entry requirements

An upper second-class Bachelor’s degree, or a second-class Bachelor’s degree together with a Master's degree from a UK university in a relevant subject, or an equivalent overseas qualification.

Additional eligibility requirements

The STFC studentship will pay your full tuition fees and a maintenance allowance for 3.5 years (subject to the PhD upgrade review).


Effect of Particle Traps on the Disk Chemistry and the Future Composition of Planets

Supervisor: Dr. Paola Pinilla

Recent observations of protoplanetary disks reveal that substructures in the dust distribution of protoplanetary disks are common. These substructures show different forms, prevalence, locations, scales, and amplitudes around stars with different properties, such stellar luminosity and age (Andrews 2020). Although planet-disk interaction is a popular explanation for the origin of these structures, there are several theoretical alternatives and currently the real origin remains unknown (Pinilla & Youdin 2017), and planets have been only found in one protoplanetary disk (Keppler et al., 2018). The purpose of this project is to use chemical models together with hydrodynamical and dust evolution models as crucial keys to differentiate between all these models for the origin of the observed substructures. This research is timely with the recent data from ALMA (MAPS large program, http://alma-maps.info/), which maps the chemical structures (around 25 atomic and molecular lines), and constrain the properties of the gas reservoirs on planet-forming scales, in a variety of protoplanetary disks.
Parametric studies of disk chemistry with simple prescriptions of gas and dust have shown that depletions of dust and gas make those parts of the disk more transparent to stellar and external radiation (UV and X-rays), and therefore these regions become warmer. This will have a direct influence on the locations of the ice lines of different abundant volatiles, such as water and carbon-monoxide, and as a consequence it will also affect the composition of the planets forming within these disks. Contrary, the regions where particles concentrate, the disk temperature decrease and some volatiles are sequestered in the grains (Facchini et al., 2018, Alarcón et al., 2020). Current chemical models have only explored in detail the case of planet-disk interaction with several simplifications. In this thesis, we will explore the effect of different origins of pressure bumps in the disk, including planets, dead zones, zonal flows, and vortices. We aim to understand how the nature of such pressure bumps (when they form, how long they live, amplitude, location) affects the gas and dust distribution, the disk temperature and the chemical abundances of several volatiles in protoplanetary disks. We place interest on particular atomic and molecular lines. For instance, the carbon-to-oxygen ratio is one of the few planetary properties which can provide useful information on the formation history of a planet and it can be measure both in planets and disks (e.g., Madhusudhan et al., 2012, Bergin et al., 2016).

Desired Knowledge and Skills

  • Undergraduate in astrophysics
  • Strong computational skills
  • (Optional) Background on chemistry
Magnetars and neutron stars emission – model development in the IXPE/eXTP era

Supervisor: Prof. Silvia Zane

Neutron stars (NSs), the end points of massive stars, are the most magnetic objects in the Universe. The project will study two unique type of NSs – XDINS and  magnetars. Their ultra-strong magnetic field (up to 1E14–1E15 G) makes them unique laboratories to test fundamental physics under conditions not reproducible on Earth. Several issues are still unresolved: dedicated model atmosphere codes do not exist to simulate the emission from the star surface when the neutron star is surrounded by an active magnetosphere and current back bombard the surface. Also, the issue of modeling a realistic thermal map taking into account for the very anisotropic conductivity of the code is open. The emission generate from the surface is expected to be highly polarized, and further polarization is expected to be acquired through scattering as the light travel across the magnetosphere. The student is expected to tackle part of these points, readapting and extending dedicated codes to simulate the expected spectrum, lightcurve and polarization degrees, to be compared with existing observations. Results are expected to contribute to the scientific working groups of next generation X-ray polarimetric space missions, as IXPE (NASA) and eXTP (CAS).

Desired Knowledge and Skills

  • Undergraduate in astrophysics
  • Strong computational skills, radiative transfer knowledge, background in neutron stars and compact objects
    Euclid Weak Lensing

    Supervisor: Prof. Thomas Kitching

    Euclid is an ESA/NASA mission that will launch in 2023. It will survey 3/4 of the extragalactic sky, back in time over 10 billion years, resulting in a Petabyte scale data set of Billions of galaxies. Euclid is designed and built around a technique called weak lensing - that is the distorting, gravitational lensing effect caused by dark matter on the images of every galaxy. In MSSL we lead the weak lensing analysis in Euclid, and built the Euclid VIS Instrument (the largest full-image camera ever launched for astronomy). This PhD project is to work on and lead part of the weak lensing analysis for Euclid; a unique and historically important opportunity to be at the heart of a new and transformative mission that will change our view of Universe. Specifically, the work will be to develop and integrate new insights on how we account for any residual systematic effects in the data, which is a subtle yet critically important issue, into the cosmological parameter analysis pipelines, and then to use these pipelines to explore deviations from Einstein’s general relativity in cosmological scales.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in astrophysics
    • Strong computational skills
    • Strong mathematical skills 
    Geometric deep learning on the celestial sphere for cosmology and beyond

    Supervisor: Prof. Jason McEwen

    The current evolution of our Universe is dominated by the influence of dark energy and dark matter, which constitute 95% of its content. However, an understanding of the fundamental physics underlying the dark Universe remains critically lacking.  Forthcoming experiments have the potential to revolutionalise our understanding of the dark Universe.  Both the ESA Euclid satellite and the Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) will come online imminently, with Euclid scheduled for launch in 2022 and the Rubin LSST Observatory having recently achieved first light.  Sensitive statistical and deep learning techniques are required to extract cosmological information from weak observational signatures of dark energy and dark matter.
    Deep learning has been remarkably successful in the interpretation of standard (Euclidean) data, such as 1D time series data, 2D image data, and 3D video or volumetric data, now exceeding human accuracy in many cases.  However, standard deep learning techniques fail catastrophically when applied to data defined on other domains, such as data defined over networks, 3D objects, or other manifolds such as the sphere. This has given rise to the field of geometric deep learning (Bronstein et al. 2017, 2021).
    In cosmology, wide field observations are made on the celestial sphere giving rise to  spherical 360° data, such as observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) relic radiation from the Big Bang and observations of cosmic shear of galaxies, which can be used to better understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy.  Upcoming experiments such as Euclid and Rubin Observatory LSST will capture wide-field data for which the underlying spherical geometry must be accurately modelled. Thus, geometric deep learning techniques constructed natively on the sphere will be essential for next-generation deep learning analyses to extract cosmological information from these upcoming datasets.
    McEwen and collaborators have recently developed efficient generalised spherical convolutional neutral networks (Cobb et al. 2021) and spherical scattering networks (McEwen et al. 2021)
    that have shown exceptional performance. These techniques are now starting to be applied in virtual reality and in medical imaging.
    The focus of the current project is two-fold.  First, further foundations of geometric deep learning on the sphere will be developed, including new types of spherical deep learning layers and architectures, in order to address the open problems in the field, such as scalability to large datasets and interpretability.  Second, geometric deep learning techniques on the sphere will be applied to the analysis of cosmological data of the CMB and of cosmic shear, in particular from Euclid and the Rubin Observatory, in order to better understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy.  Furthermore, additional applications beyond cosmology, such as for diffusion MRI in medical imaging, may also be considered.  The precise focus between these different areas will depend on the interests and expertise of the student.
    The student should have a strong mathematical background and be proficient in coding, particularly in Python.  The student will gain extensive expertise during the project in deep learning, going far beyond the straightforward application of existing deep learning techniques, instead focusing on novel foundational deep learning approaches and their application to novel problems in cosmology and beyond.  The expertise gained in foundational deep learning will prepare the student well for a future career either in academia or industry.  In particular, geometric deep learning is a speciality highly sought after in industry by companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and many others, for the analysis of social networks and hierarchical data.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in physics, mathematics, computer science or statistics (or related field)
    • Strong computational skills
    • Strong mathematical skills
    • Some background in astrophysics is desirable but not essential
    • Some background in machine learning is desirable but not essential
    Multi-messenger astrophysics of gravitational wave sources – spin-interaction of EMRI with a pulsar

    Supervisor: Prof. Kinwah Wu

    The direct LIGO/VIRGO detection of gravitational waves (GW) emitted by compact astrophysical objects confirmed a key prediction of general relativity and opened up new opportunities for the investigation of astrophysics and fundamental in the extreme environments associated with the GW sources. The discovery of the electromagnetic counterpart of GW source GW170817, caused by merging of two neutron stars firmly established the viability of time-domain multi-messenger study of extreme relativistic systems. GW sources are inhomogeneous classes of objects, and the frequencies/wavelengths of the GW are determined by the linear size of the emitter. This project investigates the multi-messenger astrophysics of black hole – neutron star and/or neutron star – neutron star mergers. These systems are GW sources. The presence of a neutron star in the systems implies that they also produce electromagnetic radiation. In particular, they expect to emit gamma rays. When a neutron star is disrupted, in the merging process, there is rapid change in density and pressure, forcing the neutron star material to undergo a hadronic phase transition, and a consequence is the production of leptons and neutrinos. An option of the project is to investigate the hadronic phase transition that lead to emission of the gamma-ray and neutrinos, with their timing properties in reference to the GW signals. Another option is to investigate general relativistic transport of photon and non-photon particles in these mergers, to be detected by the LIGO/KAGRA/ET/LISA GW experiments and the space gamma-ray observatories.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Creative and critical thinking.
    • Strong undergraduate training in physics/astrophysics and in mathematical methods.
    • Comfortable with both analytical and numerical calculations.
    Chemodynamics of the Milky Way and other Galaxies, Understanding the Role of Dark Matter

    Supervisor: Dr. Ralph Schoenrich

    Galactic astronomy is experiencing a revolutionary increase in available data. A large number of international surveys, like the Gaia satellite mission, is mapping the positions, motions, and properties of our galaxy’s stars as well as external galaxies from ground and space, to reveal the structure, dynamics and history of our own Galaxy and compare it to disc galaxies in general. The number of stars for which we have good information on position, motion, and surface composition (which tells us where a star came from), has increased by a factor 104 or 105compared to what we had 10 years ago. These data can only be fully understood with statistical methods and detailed chemodynamical models. MSSL/UCL has unique competence in both understanding the data from modern surveys and to apply them to constrain e.g. the distribution of dark matter, to understand the detailed structure, e.g. of the Galactic bar and spiral arms, and the history of the stellar populations within the Galaxy's disc and halo. Several options of PhD projects, including Astrostatistics and stellar parameters, Chemodynamical modelling of the Milky Way surveys and Detailed dynamics/vertical structure of the Milky Way disc, are available. The applicants are encouraged to contact and discuss with Dr Schoenrich.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in physics or astrophysics
    • Strong analytical skills, programming skills desirable
    Evolution of the radial and vertical distribution of protoplanetary disks from scattered-light observations

    Supervisor: Dr. Paola Pinilla

    Protoplanetary disks are the sites of planet formation. They are mainly composed by molecular gas, however, accessing the gas distribution from observations (including gas mass and its radial/vertical extension) in disks is challenging.  Therefore, most of the information that we have about planets forming in disks comes from the dust that dominates the disk opacity. Observationally, we can access the distribution of micron-sized particles and pebbles (mm/cm-sized particles) trough observations of scattered-light at optical/near infrared and interferometric (sub-) millimeter observations, respectively. Due to the aerodynamical drag from the gas, pebbles are subject of radial drift and settling to the midplane in disks. For this reason, the radial and vertical extension of pebbles inferred from observations do not trace the actual gas disk distribution (e.g., Birnstiel et al., 2016, Andrews 2020).
    However, small grains are expected to be well coupled to the gas and their distribution is close to the gas distribution. Recently, the SPHERE instrument at VLT have provided unprecedented scattered-light images of several protoplanetary disks. This PhD project aims to connect models of gas and dust evolution in protoplanetary disks under different physical conditions that can rule their evolution and compare the results with state-of-the-art SPHERE observations. I am part of an international collaboration of a large accepted program (DESTINYS, https://www.christian-ginski.com/home/destinys), which targets 85 protoplanetary disks around T-Tauri stars in different star forming regions with different age (from ~1 to 10 million years). With the privileged access to these data, in this project we will investigate the radial and vertical distribution in protoplanetary disks as seen in scattered light and its evolution, connect to what is observed at mm-emission from powerful telescopes, such as ALMA, in order to have a better understanding of the physical mechanisms that rule the evolution of disks.
    There are two leading mechanisms proposed for transporting mass and angular momentum that drive global disk evolution: turbulent viscosity and Magneto-hydrodynamical (MHD) disk winds, both of them leave different imprints on the evolution of the gas disk size: while the disk is expected to expand with time in the turbulent viscosity case, the opposite happens in the case of MHD winds (e.g., Pringle, 1981 and Bai & Stone, 2013). On the other hand, the vertical distribution of the small grains in protoplanetary disks can provide constrains on the vertical turbulence in the disks (Villenave et al., 2020), and with this project we will study the potential evolution of such vertical turbulence.  The knowledge of what drives the evolution of protoplanetary disk is a key element to understand how planets form in these systems and to link with the large population of exoplanets observed up to day.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in astrophysics
    • Computational skills

    Planetary Science

    Identification of biosignatures on Mars using the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover

    Supervisor: Dr. Louisa Preston

    The search for life on Mars is currently focused on the detection of organic molecules on or beneath the planet’s surface, trapped within mineral structures. Of particular interest are ancient lacustrine environments highly suitable for the development of microbial communities and the preservation of biosignatures. In 2023 the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover will arrive at Mars, landing in Oxia Planum. Orbital observations suggest that a standing body of water would have covered almost the entire ExoMars rover landing ellipse and subaqueous episodes created a 10 km long deltaic fan. These environments and their subsequent sedimentary deposits are excellent locations for the collection, concentration, and preservation of organic material derived from both the lake environment and the surrounding catchment areas, and as such will be ideal targets for biosignature detection and the search for ancient life on Mars.
    To help the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover find and identify suitable astrobiological targets, an integrated understanding is needed of how and where we can identify biosignatures and their mineralogical host rocks, together with an expectation of the extent to which surface materials will mask any organic molecular signatures present. The overarching goal of this proposed research project is to characterise astrobiologically relevant mineralogical targets to aid the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover mission and Mars Sample Return activities. It will include studies into the utility of ExoMars rover remote instruments, such as PanCam and the Infrared Spectrometer for ExoMars (ISEM), to characterise these targets through variable concentrations of Martian soil and dust. These terrestrial-based analyses will be combined with in-situ Mars surface data once the Rosalind Franklin rover lands on Mars in 2023.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in planetary science or earth science.
    • Strong computational skills.
    The Many Influences on Comets’ Tails

    Supervisor: Prof. Geraint Jones

    Comets’ icy nuclei, typically measuring only a few kilometres across, carry invaluable information on the origins of our Solar System. In addition, the processes through which they release gas and dust when heated by the Sun, and the behaviour of that material after it leaves the nucleus, tells us a great deal about the environment surrounding each comet.
    The dust grains that are released from comets follow orbits around the Sun that are affected by the solar radiation: photons striking these tiny grains push them away in the direction opposite to the pull of the Sun’s gravitational field, creating a dust tail. For very small grains, this radiation force can be strong enough to overcome gravity and can blow them out of the solar system! The gases that are released get ionized, and join the flow of the solar wind. These dynamic, glowing ion tails tell us about the changing activity levels of the comet and the variations in the solar wind itself.
    Recent work in our group has revealed strong evidence of solar wind effects on dust tails too (e.g. Price+ 2019): extensive dust tails have been found to be moulded and re-arranged by the effects of the fast flow of charged material from the Sun, through processes that we don’t fully understand. This PhD project would build upon this tantalizing work, through the analysis of imaging data obtained by professional and amateur astronomers on Earth, by space-based imagers that are primarily designed to study the Sun and its near-environment, and with newly-gathered images. As well as helping us better understand the expected influence of sunlight and the solar wind on the comets’ dust and ion tails, the research would involve searching for further evidence for the solar wind’s effects on dust tails, and applying our understanding of structures in the solar wind through instruments such as those on the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, to try to determine the processes responsible for rearranging dust tail material in particular. The outcome of this research is expected to benefit preparations for ESA’s Comet Interceptor mission, due for launch in 2029.
    Price, O., et al., Icarus 319, 540, 2019

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in astrophysics, planetary science, or a related field.
    • Strong computational skills would be a benefit.

    Solar Physics 

    Spectroscopic signatures of solar flare onset

    Supervisor: Prof. Sarah Matthews

    The Sun is our closest star, and with space now firmly established as part of our society’s environment, its unique proximity has inescapable consequences for us. While its radiation provides the energy source of our whole ecosystem, our understanding of how the variations in that radiation control, e.g. our climate, still contains huge gaps. As well as the long-term variations in the solar output, the Sun exhibits a cycle of activity the constituents of which are explosive events which release energy. This explosive energy release occurs on a myriad of scales, from nanoflares to huge eruptive flares, which are accompanied by the bulk eruption of plasma and magnetic field known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and whose impacts can be seen globally across the Sun and throughout the heliosphere. The most extreme of these events constitute the largest examples of explosive energy release within our solar system, during which upwards of 1026 J of energy is released. Solar flares comprise a key component of space weather, and yet despite their key importance and the extensive range of observations available from space and the ground, the precise mechanisms that lead to their onset remain an open question.
    Emission lines measured in the solar atmosphere routinely show widths in excess of both the thermal Doppler and instrumental line widths. Measurements of these so-called ‘non-thermal’ widths provide additional information on the state of the emitting plasma, including the possible existence of turbulence, or effects due to pressure and opacity broadening. X-ray non-thermal line widths have long been observed to show substantial enhancements during flaring activity, peaking early in the impulsive phase and increasing up to tens of minutes before the flare peak, a result that has been confirmed and refined with EUV observations from Hinode EIS (for which Sarah Matthews is the Principal Investigator). Such an early response to the flaring suggests that this parameter is potentially significant in the early trigger phase of flares. X-ray and EUV spectral lines are formed in plasmas with temperatures that represent conditions in the solar corona, where the standard model indicates energy is released. However, recent work exploring the profiles of spectral lines formed in the lower atmosphere suggests correlations between profile shape and flare energy deposition. These initial results have yet to be compared with coronal line profiles, however, which would enable the energy release and deposition process to be tracked throughout the entire solar atmosphere enabling new insights into flare onset and possibilities for future prediction techniques.

    The project will initially utilise spectroscopic data from Hinode EIS and IRIS, incorporating new data from Solar Orbiter as it becomes available from the EUI, SPICE and STIX instruments. The research undertaken will also form part of the solar group’s preparatory work for the Solar C EUVST mission currently under development and scheduled for launch in 2027. The student undertaking this project would thus have the opportunity to participate both in the international Hinode EIS and Solar C EUVST teams, including attending team meetings and collaborative visits.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate or MSc degree in physics, astrophysics, or related area is desirable, but curious and motivated students with other backgrounds will also be considered.
    • Previous experience of data analysis, as well as good writing and presentation skills, are also desirable but not essential.
    How do magnetic waves affect plasma composition?

    Supervisor: Dr. David Long

    Elemental abundance patterns are tracers of physical processes throughout the universe, with the cosmic reference standard being the solar chemical composition. Understanding, therefore, how the Sun’s chemical composition varies in time and space provides insight both into how mass and energy flow through the Sun’s atmosphere into the solar wind, and also through the atmospheres of solar-like stars into stellar winds. The Sun mainly consists of hydrogen and helium, with trace amounts of heavier elements. Although its atmosphere (corona) should have the same elemental abundances as the surface (photosphere), easily ionized elements are enhanced by a factor 2-4 in the corona compared to their photospheric abundances; behaviour known as the first ionisation potential (FIP) effect. Spectroscopic observations of the Sun have shown that the spatial and temporal variability of coronal composition is intrinsically linked to the evolution of the solar magnetic field, with more recent results indicating that abundance variation is related to waves observed in the photosphere/chromosphere propagating along magnetic field lines.
    The aim of this project is to use a combination of very high-resolution imaging and spectroscopic observations and modelling techniques to examine the evolution of plasma abundance and quantify the nature of its relationship with magnetic waves and oscillations in the low solar atmosphere. This project will involve proposing and obtaining new observations from ground-based solar telescopes, learning spectroscopic analysis and data inversion techniques, and will require close collaboration with international experts from Italy, Norway, the USA, and the UK.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in astrophysics
    • Strong computational skills
    Our Sun, the Astrophysical Particle Accelerator

    Supervisor: Dr. Hamish Reid

    Our Sun’s outer atmosphere is extremely unstable.  Frequent explosions accelerate particle beams to near-light speeds, and periodically expel huge volumes of mass, known as solar storms.  Most astrophysical particle acceleration is astronomically far away which makes data scarce, but our close proximity to our Sun makes it a local laboratory that provides a bounty of data.  Understanding the acceleration and transport of particle beams is an important, modern challenge.  Moreover, the effect of our active Sun on the Earth (known as space weather) can have a direct economic impact though damaging satellites, disrupting radio communications and destabilised power grids through increased electric currents.
    The goal of this project is to understand astrophysical particle acceleration by analysing solar radio emission produced by near-relativistic electrons.  Known as solar radio noise storms, these acceleration events are believed to be caused by complex magnetic fields becoming unstable and energising the local particles, a process that is ubiquitous across all astrophysical particle acceleration.  During this project, we will statistically analyse the periodicity of these noise storms, their amplitude variation and how the radio emission evolves in frequency to quantify the properties of this energy release and compare them with particle acceleration models.  The project has significant scope for highly novel research.  Radio noise storms has been underused historically due to poor radio telescope resolutions, a problem that we will remedy by using new-age radio interferometers like the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) with orders of magnitude better resolution that before.
    Depending on individual student interest, the project can be extended in many ways.  We can directly analyse the particle beams using NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (launched 2018) and ESA’s Solar Orbiter (launched 2020), spacecraft that are flying close to the Sun than ever before.  We can combine the radio signatures with the X-ray emission caused by particle beams reaching the dense lower atmosphere of the Sun.  We can also numerically model the particle transport through the solar atmosphere and simulate the radio emission produced to further refine our understand of astrophysical particle acceleration and transport.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in astrophysics
    • Strong computational skills
    • Experience in data analysis
    Can solar eruptions be forecast using a novel combination of observations and machine learning techniques?

    Supervisor: Prof. Lucie Green

    The Sun's character is determined by its dynamic and evolving magnetic field, particularly in regions of intense magnetism known as active regions. When active regions are young, they are the source of the most violent and energetic events in the Solar System - coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When active regions die, they disperse their magnetic field across the Sun and remnants of this field become the input for the next solar cycle. But these dying active regions continue to produce coronal mass ejections. These ejections are of intense interest as they can drive major space weather impacts at Earth. For example, the changes they produce in the near-Earth space environment can ultimately lead to disruptions to electricity distribution, communications, and navigation systems. Knowing why and when these ejections will occur is therefore centrally important to understanding how the Sun operates but also for developing an ability to make accurate space weather forecasts. 
    Currently, although many advances have been made in our understanding of coronal mass ejections, there is no reliable way to predict their occurrence in advance. This project will use state-of-the-art machine learning image analysis techniques and use these to build a predictive model for coronal mass ejections. This PhD project is particularly timely due to new data availability and advances in machine learning techniques, and brings together supervisors with expertise in observational solar physics (Prof. Lucie Green: luciegreen.com) and machine learning/AI and cosmology (Prof. Tom Kitching: http://www.thomaskitching.net). 
    If a reliable prediction technique can be developed, it will be used by space weather forecasters around the world, for example by the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre in the UK. 
    High-resolution space and ground-based observations of active regions will be used to monitor how the magnetic field of active regions evolves over time and how changes at small spatial scales are able to contribute to the large-scale evolution of the magnetic field to the point of eruption. The PhD research will employ relevant machine learning techniques in order to identify whether certain active region characteristics, or evolutionary pathways, lead to coronal mass ejections. There will be strong links to the Solar Orbiter mission (launched in 2020), in which MSSL plays a leading role, as Solar Orbiter aims to investigate how changes to the Sun's magnetic field produce solar eruptions. In the later stages of the project, data will become available from the DKIST facility in Hawaii. DKIST is a four-meter reflecting telescope with a spatial resolution that reaches the fundamental length scales of photon mean-free path and the plasma pressure scale height, which is needed to study the building blocks of the magnetic field that relate to coronal mass ejections. 

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate modules in plasma physics, solar physics or astrophysics
    • Strong computational skills

    Space Plasma Physics

    Solar Orbiter: Studies of Solar Wind Dynamics

    Supervisor: Dr. Georgios Nicolaou

    European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Solar Orbiter is a mission which is dedicated to shed light on open science questions about the dynamic processes of the Sun. The mission was launched on 11th of February in 2020, carrying 10 scientific instruments on board. UCL/MSSL is the Principal Investigator (PI) Institute on an international consortium providing the Solar Wind Analyser suite (SWA) of instruments for the ESA Solar Orbiter mission. SWA uses three sensors which sample electron, proton, alpha particle and heavy ion populations at various distances spanning from 0.28 AU to 1 AU from the Sun and at high solar latitudes.  In particular, UCL/MSSL has designed and built the Electron Analyser System (EAS) for the SWA suite.  SWA partners in France, Italy and the USA have provided the Heavy Ion Sensor (HIS) and Proton-Alpha Sensor (PAS) for the suite.  In addition, MSSL has a major role in the EUI instrument on the spacecraft, which consists of a suite of imaging telescopes to observe the solar atmosphere. The simultaneous observations of the solar atmosphere and the in-situ plasma sampling at the spacecraft location offers great opportunities for unique studies linking dynamic processes on the Sun and their consequences in the Solar wind plasma in the interplanetary medium, up to the edge of the Heliosphere.
    SWA data can resolve dynamic variations of solar wind plasma particles in very short time scales (~1s). The careful analysis of such variations will help in understanding the complicated mechanisms involved in space plasma heating and acceleration. By combining observations of all SWA sensors we will obtain important information about the energy partition between plasma species. The available data set can support analysis within a PhD program starting in September 2022.  In particular, we should aim to use measurements from the 3 SWA sensors to undertake studies of the nature of the solar wind particle populations, their thermodynamic properties and variability. The project could carry out case studies investigating dynamic mechanisms in specific solar wind structures, combining in-situ and remote sensing observations. Moreover, statistical studies of the Solar Wind thermodynamic properties over the covered heliocentric distance can be supported from the available data. Those studies will reveal the evolution of the solar wind plasma within the inner heliosphere. In addition, it would be beneficial to undertake coordinated studies with data from other missions, such as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.
    The results of such projects are critical to the success of the overall ESA Solar Orbiter program, and the student will thus also be an integral part of the MSSL science and science-planning teams. There will also be opportunity to collaborate with our partners in Europe and the USA, who have provided the HIS and PAS sensors for the SWA suite and other major subsystems for EUI.  This project will place the student in a good position to collaborate more generally and to find future positions e.g. within the Solar Orbiter community internationally.

    Solar Orbiter

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate degree in physics or closely related topic.
    • Strong computational skills.
    • Strong interest in data analysis.
    Investigating the Earth’s magnetosphere using multi-spacecraft measurements

    Supervisor: Prof. Andrew Fazakerley

    The Earth’s magnetosphere is a large dynamic structure whose behaviour remains only partially understood despite study over several decades. In the last decade an unprecedented and growing number of space plasma physics research missions has been collecting data in the magnetosphere, including Cluster, THEMIS, VAP, SWARM and MMS, each a multi-spacecraft mission in its own right. Careful planning has gradually brought the orbits of Cluster, MMS and THEMIS in particular into well coordinated alignments, so that the grand constellation has been able to make simultaneous measurements at key locations across the magnetotail in summer seasons, at the bowshock, magnetosheath and magnetopause in winter seasons and along the magnetopause flanks in spring and autumn seasons. Similarly, in all seasons these many spacecraft have regularly collected data throughout the inner magnetosphere.
    These newly collected data have as yet received limited attention, but the science operations that produced the data were designed to allow investigations of diverse unresolved or only partially resolved questions such as the nature of the process by which the cold, dense plasmasheet is formed, the nature and origin of north/south asymmetries on the magnetotail and of the cusps, the distribution and scale of reconnection sites through the magnetotail plasmasheet and across the magnetopause, the sequence of events in the magnetotail corresponding to auroral substorms, the fate of plasma populations injected into the inner magnetosphere during substorms and their possible contribution to radiation belt population enhancement and loss, and the physical processes at work in the auroral acceleration regions. The supervisor team has prior experience in all these areas.
    The aim of the project will be to explore the datasets produced in the planned observations seasons associated with one or more of these science goals, and to identify and analyse data from particularly interesting multi-mission, multi-spacecraft conjunctions, in order to shed new light on these long-standing questions. Magnetotail or magnetopause projects would likely be the most productive areas for initial study.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in physics or astrophysics
    • Good understanding of classical electromagnetism (Lorentz force, Maxwell’s equations, etc.)
    • Knowledge of plasma physics is desirable but not required
    Imaging the Earth’s magnetosphere response to solar wind variability

    Supervisor: Prof. Graziella Branduardi-Raymont

    A recent discovery showed that soft X-rays are produced in the Earth’s magnetosheath and cusps by the process of charge exchange between solar wind ions and neutrals in the Earth’s exosphere. The Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE) is a joint mission of the European Space Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences that will study the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth’s magnetosphere. At the end of 2024 the mission will take into space four instruments, two of them being imagers, the Soft X-ray Imager (SXI) and the UV Imager (UVI). SXI will take X-ray images of the dayside magnetosphere with the purpose of studying its response to solar wind variations in a totally new way.
    In order to understand the data SMILE will return, we are simulating the X-rays emitted by the cusp and magnetosheath and the output of SXI. First, we simulate the Earth’s magnetosphere under given solar wind conditions using global MHD (MagnetoHydroDynamic) models available by a special online service developed at NASA. Second, we use a special code written in IDL that generates the output of the SXI instrument by processing 3-D MHD simulations. An example of the simulated images is shown in Fig. 1. This poses the interesting challenge of how to reconstruct a 3-D magnetopause by processing a 2-D image.

    The motivation behind the project on offer is that of studying large-scale magnetic reconnection at the dayside magnetopause and transitions between different magnetospheric modes. Dayside reconnection is induced by an increase in the solar wind dynamic pressure and/or a southward interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) turning. So far, many modelling and observational studies have been devoted to the magnetospheric response to solar wind pressure jumps (e.g. interplanetary shocks) and to solar wind tangential/rotational discontinuities. These phenomena are part of what we call ‘space weather’, representing the impact of solar wind variability on environmental conditions in near Earth space, which can have severe disrupting consequences on our technological infrastructure, in space and on the ground. A particularly interesting issue is the magnetospheric response to southward IMF turnings. This is important in magnetospheric physics because the IMF component orthogonal to the equatorial plane is thought to be one of the most important driving parameters for the solar wind – magnetosphere interaction. And it is a topic that has great potential for investigations applying SMILE imaging.
    A large number of events (about one per month or more, depending on selection criteria) of southward IMF turning that require investigation have already been found in the rich databases of solar wind measurements carried out by many space probes over the years. Questions that we want to find an answer to are like:
    Which types of solar wind structures are related to southward IMF turnings? Are they the sort of conditions that lead to geomagnetic storms and substorms? In addition, there are many other unresolved issues that a PhD project in this area can address. For example, we know that the magnetopause shape and position are different for northward and southward IMF but the empirical and MHD models we have do not describe them accurately. MHD model runs, combined with observations from spacecraft, could better constrain the mathematical form of the magnetopause shape.
    The approach envisaged to this research consists of three steps: 1) Using the OMNI database, find intervals with solar wind southward IMF turnings and study the magnetospheric response using magnetic indices; 2) Simulate some selected events using global MHD models (through NASA’s online service) and find corresponding magnetopause crossings in spacecraft data, if possible; 3) Using the SXI simulator code, predict the output of the SXI instrument using the  MHD simulations as input, i.e. obtain predicted SXI images for the events, then extract information about the magnetopause position and morphology, and estimate the accuracy of the calculated magnetopause locations. In conclusion, assess the feasibility of applying the SMILE SXI to investigate such events, as well as the requirements on future missions which will carry similar imagers on board. Alongside this, the student working on this project will examine the magnetospheric auroral activity associated with the simulated events to try and establish the physical reasons of the different types of variability observed during them. Expectations of what the SMILE UV Imager, continuously monitoring the northern auroral oval, will display during such events will also form part of the project’s investigations.

    SMILE MHD Simulations.

    Fig. 1: MHD simulations of X-ray emissivity (left) and SXI simulated images (right) at four times during an event of very high solar wind density and protracted northward interplanetary magnetic field.


    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in physics, Earth sciences or astrophysics.
    • Good computational skills (students will be also encouraged to develop their own code as appropriate to deliver parts of the project).
    • Students will also be welcome to participate in the exciting programme of outreach running at MSSL, in particular in promoting the potential of SMILE imaging to engage the general public and schoolchildren.
    Interactions between electrostatic fluctuations and electrons in the solar wind

    Supervisor: Dr. Daniel Verscharen

    Almost all the visible matter in the Universe is in the plasma state. Plasmas are globally neutral gases of free electrons and ions. The interactions between the plasma particles and electromagnetic fields are a matter of ongoing theoretical, numerical, and observational research. The solar wind is an example for a space plasma that we measure in great detail with the help of spacecraft such as Solar Orbiter. Like all plasmas, the solar wind carries a variety of waves as quasi-periodic fluctuations in the particle quantities and the electromagnetic fields. When the plasma particles interact with these fluctuations, the particles and the fields can exchange energy. The understanding of this energy transfer is one of the biggest challenges in the field of space science, as it directly relates to the mystery of collisionless plasma heating.
    This project focuses on the interactions between plasma electrons and electrostatic fluctuations in the solar wind. Based on analytical theory and plasma computer simulations, the student will first investigate electrostatic instabilities that are driven by the electrons in the solar wind. Once present, the electrostatic fluctuations can be damped by the plasma electrons, leading to plasma heating. In the second step, the student will then develop a model for the damping of electrostatic fluctuations based on linear Vlasov-Maxwell theory, the framework of quasilinear theory, and particle-in-cell simulations.
    Modern space missions such as Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe often measure electrostatic fluctuations in the solar wind; however, the origin and evolution of these fluctuations are still unknown.  The theoretical predictions of this project will be tested against observations from Solar Orbiter. The spacecraft’s Solar Wind Analyser (SWA), led and largely built by MSSL, provides us with detailed electron measurements, while the Radio and Plasma Waves (RPW) instrument measures electrostatic waves. By combining theory with observations, this project will contribute a key milestone to our understanding of energy transfer in space plasmas.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in physics or astrophysics
    • Good understanding of classical electromagnetism (Lorentz force, Maxwell’s equations, etc.)
    • Knowledge of plasma physics is desirable but not required

    Systems Engineering

    Demystifying Space 4.0: Transforming space operations through the use of digital technologies

    Supervisor: Dr. Chekfoung Tan

    The space industry operates in a high technology environment. It involves various business and technological resources, governed by the regulations to design and develop space products and services. A network of human and non-human agents are involved in such complex activities. Digital technologies are applied in the upstream and downstream value chain in space activities. For the upstream segment, digital technologies enable the business activities relevant to the production and deployment of space systems. In the downstream segment, technology such as data analytics is employed to explore the space systems' capabilities and deliver space-enabled products and services to end-users.  Due to its complex nature, it is essential to ensure these space activities are cost-efficient and deliver the optimal values.  Moreover, a sustainable approach in running space activities is required for minimising the environmental impact, such as the space debris issue. Existing research has shown how industry 4.0 could transform business models and operations by integrating digital solutions such as cloud technologies, big data analytics, additive manufacturing, augmented reality, internet of things and robotics. In addition, these technologies could also contribute to organisational sustainability efforts through reducing, reusing, recycling and recovering materials. However, there is still limited research on incorporating this concept in the space sector, leading to Space 4.0. Moreover, the digital landscape of space activities tends to operate in a silo, managed by individual organisations. As a result, there is a lack of an integrated approach to how digital technologies could affect and align the upstream and downstream value chain activities with various human agents ranging from governments to private investors. Therefore, this research intends to take an interdisciplinary lens of business and technology management, aiming to explore the use of digital technologies in the context of Space 4.0 in transforming space operations to achieve and sustain economic and environmental benefits. The key research questions are: 
    How could Space 4.0 play a role in transforming space operations by integrating a circular approach for sustainability purposes? What are the critical success factors that contribute to the business-technology alignment in space operations?
    Key themes: Space 4.0, Industry 4.0, digital transformation, circular economy, sustainability, business-technology alignment / business-IT alignment
    This research will begin with a systematic review of the literature to explore relevant themes. The findings will lead to developing a digital transformation framework, which will be validated with case studies.  This research intends to develop a sustainable transformation framework in the long run for space operations by creating new opportunities or optimising the existing capabilities of all agents involved (human and non-human) to drive economic growth, technological innovation and environmental benefits.

    Desired Knowledge and Skills

    • Undergraduate in Space Engineering, Information Systems and Management, Computer Science or other related disciplines.
    • Sound knowledge in mixed-methods methodology, design science research or case study research
    • Other knowledge or previous experience in the following areas are preferable: systems thinking, collateral analysis, system or enterprise modelling methods such as UML and ArchiMate.
    • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
    • Ability to publish research findings at academic conferences or peer-reviewed journals

    Other PhD opportunities in UCL

    There are similar PhD projects available in other departments in the UCL, which are sometimese (co-)supervised by our academic staff. Such opportunities are listed below. Please note that you need to submit an application to the other department or Centre for Doctoral Training, if you are also applying for their projects.