UCL Department of Space and Climate Physics


STFC PhD Projects 2019

Applications of STFC funded studentships at MSSL starting in 2019 are now open. PhD projects in astrophysics, planetary science and space plasma/solar physics are detailed below.

Applications submitted by 9th June 2019 will be given full consideration. We will continue accepting applications until all places are filled. After we receive your application, we will select candidates for interviews. If you are selected, you will be invited for an interview at MSSL. You will have the opportunity to see the laboratory, students' flats and talk to current students. The studentships are for the advertised projects only. In your application, please specify which project you want to apply for. 

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.

Students from the UK or those from the EU who meet the residency requirements (3 years' full-time residency in the UK) are potentially eligible for a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) studentship.

Additional eligibility requirements

These pay UK/EU tuition fees and a maintenance allowance for 3.5 years (subject to the PhD upgrade review).

EU students who do not meet eligibility requirements still qualify for the UK/EU fees rate, but not the STFC maintenance allowance.

Magnetohydrodynamics and Observational Properties of Compact Objects in Strong Gravity

Supervisor: Prof. Silvia Zane and Dr. Ziri Younsi

Observations of compact objects, e.g., neutron stars or black holes, exhibit a rich and time-variable dynamics which is closely related to the (thermo-)dynamical properties of matter entrained around the central object. Powerful gravitational fields cause nearby matter to accrete towards the object and heat up, producing copious electromagnetic radiation that may or may not escape the system depending on the local thermodynamic conditions and local gravitational field properties. In particular, for black holes the accretion process drives powerful bipolar jets of relativistic plasma which may be the precursor to the large-scale jets seen in radio galaxies. Understanding the corresponding physical properties of relativistic, magnetised, and turbulent plasmas in the presence of powerful gravitational fields is therefore a necessity. How do the dynamics of the black hole, its ergo-region and its event horizon modify the accreting plasma and the local thermodynamical conditions? What are the possible electromagnetic signatures produced in such systems? What would happen if instead of a black hole we consider a neutron star - how does the presence of a (conducting) surface modify the dynamics of both the plasma and the spin of the neutron star itself? What is the role of magnetic fields and how do they mediate both the accretion process and the dynamical properties of the compact object? Are there characteristic observational features carried away by escaping electromagnetic (or even gravitational wave, in the case of binary systems) radiation which we can use to interpret the observational data from current and next-generation electromagnetic (e.g. EHT, SKA) and gravitational wave (LIGO/VIRGO, LISA) observatories?

The chosen candidate will decide, after discussion with the supervisors, one or two of the aforementioned topics to investigate. The student will develop new theoretical and computational frameworks to model the accretion properties and electromagnetic radiation from accreting systems, as well as develop more sophisticated models of accretion using state-of-the-art numerical simulations. With these frameworks, the aim will be to provide meaningful predictions which can be tested with current and next-generation astrophysical observatories.


Desired Knowledge and Skills

This is a theoretical-numerical project, requiring a strong training in mathematics, theoretical physics (particularly general relativity & magneto-hydrodynamics), as well as creativity and lateral thinking. Computational physics and strong programming skills (i.e., parallel computing in MPI and OpenMP, C, Modern Fortran) are a must. Familiarity with multi-GPU programming is desirable. The emphasis will be on the physics and astrophysical implications of accretion.

Revealing the Milky disk formation history with the Gaia data

Supervisor: Prof. Daisuke Kawata

European Space Agency’s Gaia mission (launched in Dec. 2013), which MSSL is heavily involved in, has made the second data release in April 2018, which provide the position and velocity measurements for more than one billion of stars in the Milky Way. These big data provide the information of kinematics of stars in the large fraction of the Milky Way disk for the first time. We are currently applying a Bayesian neural network model to measure the age and metallicity for the stars observed with the Gaia and ground- based spectroscopic survey. The combined information of the age, metallicity and kinematics for stars in the different region of the Milky Way disk must tell us the formation history of the Milky Way disk. However, secular evolution mechanisms, such as radial migration due to the bar and spiral arms of the Milky Way, and kinematic heating by the bar, molecular clouds and satellite interactions, move the stars from their birth place, making the current stellar structure different from the initial structure when they were born. Hence, to decipher the Milky Way disk formation history from the observational data of the current Milky Way, this project will develop a Bayesian model of the Galactic disk formation, including the inside- out disk growth and radial migration of stars. Then, we will fit the Gaia data with the model with Markov Chain Monte Carlo sampling, to understand the formation history of the Milky Way disk and the significance of the radial migration.

Desired Knowledge and Skills
Undergraduate in astrophysics. Strong computational skills.

Comet Science with LSST

Supervisor: Prof. Geraint Jones

The 6.7m Large Synoptic Survey Telescope – LSST – is currently being built in Chile ( https://www.lsst.org/ ). When in full operation, its 3.2 billion pixel camera will take over 800 wide angle images each night. The entire visible sky will be imaged twice each week. Prof. 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 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 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 should yield valuable information on comet nucleus activity, dust fragmentation, & the mass/charge ratios of grains from Lorentz force effects. 

The PhD project will involve the adaptation of the ion tail analysis code in Python, and its application to existing and new comet images. The development of routines to extract comet images from the LSST data for analysis 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 can be tested on 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 ( http://lsst-sssc.github.io/dataProds.html ). Once in full operation, the results of the LSST 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 Knowledge and Skills

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

Good computational skills.

Microchannel plate efficiencies for high-mass anions at Titan and beyond

Supervisor: Prof. Andrew Coates)

The discovery of high mass (up to 13,800 amu/q) negative ions in the Titan ionosphere was one of the remarkable new results from the Cassini mission (Coates et al., 2007, 2009, Waite et al., 2007, Coates et al., 2010a, Wellbrock et al., 2013, Desai et al., 2017). In addition, negative ions and charged ice grains were discovered at Enceladus (Coates et al., 2010b, Jones et al., 2009) and negative ions at Rhea (Desai et al., 2018). The measurements were made with the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) Electron Spectrometer (ELS), which was designed and calibrated to measure electrons in the Saturn magnetosphere. Detailed interpretation of the high mass negative ions and nanograin signatures require the determination of the microchannel plate (MCP) efficiency for high mass negative ions.


In this project, we will conduct an experimental study of the MCP efficiency for high mass negative ions. We will use existing and extended ion beam facilities at UCL-MSSL, using MCPs and potentially a spare ELS, and we will use international facilities (e.g. for lab-based tholins and charged dust) as required. We anticipate that the results will be important for the interpretation of data from Cassini and JUICE, and in other work such as lab-based protein studies. There will also be the opportunity to use the new values in scientific studies in the Saturn system particularly at Titan and Enceladus.


Coates, A.J., F.J. Crary, G.R. Lewis, D.T. Young, et al., Discovery of heavy negative ions in Titan’s ionosphere, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L22103, doi:10.1029/2007GL030978, 2007.


Coates, A.J., A. Wellbrock, G.R. Lewis, G.H. Jones, et al., Heavy negative ions in Titan's ionosphere: altitude and latitude dependence, Planet. Space Sci., 57, 1866-1871, doi:10.1016/j.pss.2009.05.009, 2009.


Coates, A.J., A. Wellbrock, G.R. Lewis, G.H.Jones, et al., Negative ions at Titan and Enceladus: recent results, Faraday Disc., 147(1), 293-305, DOI: 10.1039/C004700G2010, 2010a.


Coates, A.J., G.H. Jones, G.R. Lewis, A. Wellbrock, et al., Negative Ions in the Enceladus Plume, Icarus, 206, 618–622, doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2009.07.013, 2010b.


Desai, R.T., A.J. Coates, A. Wellbrock, V. Vuitton, et al., Carbon chain anions and the growth of complex organic molecules in Titan’s ionosphere, Ap. J. Lett., 844:L18 (6pp), doi:10.3847/2041-8213/aa7851, 2017.


Desai, R.T., S.A. Taylor, L.H. Regoli, A.J. Coates, et al., Cassini CAPS identification of pickup ion compositions at Rhea, GRL, 45, 1704-1712, doi: 10.1002/2017GL076588, 2018.


Jones, G.H., C. S. Arridge, A. J. Coates, G. R. Lewis, et al., Fine jet structure of electrically-charged grains in Enceladus’ plume, Geophys Res Letters, 36, L16204, doi:10.1029/2009GL038284, 2009


Waite, J. H., Jr., D. T. Young, T. E. Cravens, A. J. Coates, et al., The Process of Tholin Formation in Titan’s Upper Atmosphere, Science 316, 870, DOI: 10.1126/science.1139727, 2007.


Wellbrock, A., A.J. Coates, G.H. Jones, G.R. Lewis et al., Cassini CAPS-ELS observations of negative ions in Titan’s ionosphere: Trends of density with altitude, Geophys. Res. Lett., 40, 1-5, DOI: 10.1002/grl.50751, 2013.


Desired Knowledge and Skills

Undergraduate in physics or related subject

Skills in laboratory work

Solar Orbiter: Studies of the Solar Wind Charged Particle Populations

Supervisor: Prof. Christopher Owen

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.   Using 3 scientific sensors, 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) 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.

The mission is currently baselined for launch in Feb 2020, with a back-up in October 2020.  SWA data will be available within a few weeks of the launch, and thus analysis of this new data set can begin within the first year of a PhD program starting in September 2019.  In particular, we aim to use cruise-phase measurements from the 3 SWA sensors to undertake studies of the nature of the solar wind particle populations, their variability and their links to the Sun.  In the (hopefully short) period between the start of the PhD and launch we will undertake background/ preparatory studies using data from previous missions.

Solar orbiter and example of solar wind electron populations
Many potential projects fall within the scope of the mission science plan (interested students may wish to consult the draft ‘Science Activity Plan’ https://issues.cosmos.esa.int/solarorbiterwiki/display/SOSP/SAP-related+work generated by the PI’s and ESA) and so a potential tailoring to the specific background and interests of a research student are possible.  For example, it is known that the solar wind electron population in general consists of 3 components:  A 'core' population of the coldest electrons which is nearly isotropic - approximately the same flux of electrons of a given energy may be detected in any direction; A 'halo' population occurs at somewhat higher energies, and shows a slight shift in average velocity with respect to the core, and thus provides a 'heat flux' in the solar wind; Finally, a 'strahl' population is often seen as a more energetic beam of particles streaming along the magnetic field. Together these different electron populations contain information about the processes occurring at the source region on the Sun, the magnetic connections of the sampled plasma back to the Sun and on the plasma processes (e.g. turbulence, wave-particle interactions and magnetic reconnection) which may be occurring within the solar wind itself. Separating the effects of these processes is a complicated task requiring high-cadence, high resolution data of the type that will be available from SWA EAS.  As a further example of the kind of science envisioned here, a student might undertake studies of both the global drivers and local properties of interplanetary shocks.  Shocks and other wave fronts are driven through the solar wind by many forms of solar activity (for example, CME eruption, co-rotating interaction regions).  These shock fronts will be captured in unprecedented detail as they pass the spacecraft by the execution of a trigger mode on SWA and other in situ instruments.

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 team. There will also be opportunity to collaborate with our partners in France, Italy and the USA, who have provided the HIS and PAS sensors for the SWA suite.  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.

Desired Knowledge and Skills

Undergraduate degree in physics or closely related topic;

Strong computational skills;

Strong interest in data analysis.

Kinetic plasma physics impacts on heliospheric thermodynamics with Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter

Supervisor: Dr. Robert T. Wicks
The Parker Solar Probe (PSP) and Solar Orbiter (SolO) missions are designed to study the Sun, solar corona and the origins of the solar wind. PSP launched in August 2018 and SolO will launch in early 2020. These missions are already providing (or soon will) unique and revelatory new data that are changing our understanding of how the atmosphere of the Sun heats and accelerates plasma. One of the great challenges of space physics is understanding how the complex kinetic microscale dynamics of plasma affects the macroscopic behaviour of the plasma. For example, the non-Maxwellian proton and electron velocity distribution functions (VDF) observed in the solar wind change the sound speed and thus the thermodynamic properties of the plasma and so affect how it expands as it travels out into the heliosphere. So, the behaviours of the plasma at the smallest scales (kinetics) have consequences at the largest scales (heliospheric expansion). 
The student working on this project will initially use PSP data, and later SolO data, to examine the evolving role of proton, helium, and electron kinetic physics from 0.01 AU to 1 AU. We will compare the growth and damping of kinetic modes observed at different distances from the Sun and the evolution of non-Maxwellian features in the VDFs. Taking this result, we will then examine the energy transport through large-scale flows and turbulence to determine where the energy needed for solar wind and coronal heating and acceleration comes from and how it is processed by the expanding solar wind. Thus, we can build a picture of how macroscopic thermodynamic properties of expanding plasmas depend on kinetic plasma physics.

Desired Knowledge and Skills
Undergraduate in physics, Plasma physics knowledge, Interested in data analysis, Programming for data analysis

A possible high frame rate multispectral detector system for space debris identification 

Supervisor: Prof. Ian Hepburn
Space debris is a growing problem for satellites in Earth orbit. With the ever increasing number of launches this problem is likely to get worse. While large pieces of debris can be tracked from the ground small pieces of less than 1 cm are difficult and are the more numerous. MSSL is part of the newly funded Global Network on Sustainability In Space (GNOSIS) which brings academic and industrial groups together to address the issues in space debris. A detector system comprising single photon sensitive detectors with spectral resolution and able to take a full picture every few microseconds offers a potential way of identify very small pieces of debris. Such a system does not currently exist. This research project aims to identify the drivers, the system specification, how such a system could be built and possible proof of concept demonstration. Such a system will be investigated not only for ground based use at telescopes but also as a space based imaging system. 
Desired Knowledge and Skills 
Phyics undergraduate degree, Experimental experience, Some space knowledge would be an advantage but not completely necessary.

Spacecraft charging of CubeSats and the impact of space weather events

Supervisor: Prof. Dhiren Kataria and Dr. Anasuya Aruliah (Physics & Astronomy)
The project is mainly focused on spacecraft charging study of spacecraft in general and spacecraft in the CubeSat form factor in LEO in particular. The project will develop a model to enable estimations of spacecraft potential and then use the data from the INMS instrument on the CIRCE mission to verify the model. The project would also involve hands on work with the INMS, involvement with all aspects of INMS ground segment and in-flight operations, data analysis of in-fight data and impact of space weather events.
Desired Knowledge and Skills
Undergraduate or Masters in Physics, strong computational skills, strong interest in hands-on hardware
Note: This is supported by EPSRC DTC studentship whose duration is 3 years.