Institute for Astronomy

Solar System PhD Projects

PhD Research Projects on offer in our Solar System Group:

The evolution of comet composition

Cyrielle Opitom & Colin Snodgrass

Video: The evolution of comet composition
The evolution of comet composition

Comets are pristine relics of the protoplanetary disk, where the planets formed and evolved, and preserve in their ices important clues about the early solar nebula. By studying the coma (atmosphere) of comets when they are active, we can infer the composition of nucleus ices. However, recent studies have shown that the apparent composition of the coma of comets changes depending on how far from the Sun a comet is at the time of the observations. This effect is still poorly understood and biases the retrieval of information about the composition of nucleus ices from observations of active comets. 

The goal of this project is to use observations with optical spectrographs mounted on relatively large telescopes to measure the composition of the coma of several comets at very large distances from the Sun, and follow up as comets move closer to the Sun and then depart. The project will involve observations with a variety of large telescopes.

Origin or atmosphere and origin of life problems addressed utilizing orbital and atmospheric dynamics

Arjun Berera and Jorge Penarrubia

This project looks at the interactions between planetary atmospheres and the surrounding space environment, focusing on processes that cause atmospheric constituents to escape from our planet and spread across the Solar System. The work emerges from recent observations by one of us (AB) on how fast interplanetary space dust can collide with atmospheric constituents and allow them to escape the gravitational bound of their host planet. The work has become very timely in light of the recent discovery of biological tracers found in the Venus atmosphere. The project will explore if these could have originated from Earth. Aside from these direct collisions, recent work by one of us (JP) has shown that fluctuations created by local gravitational sources mimic the effect of multiple, softer collisions, which will affect the trajectories of particles escaping from the host planet and their orbits around the sun.

The goal of the project is to predict the distribution of Earth molecules and small particles in the Solar System as a function of time, how likely is their capture by other local planets, and whether or not they can escape from the Solar System and "pollute" the interstellar environment.

Those interested should have some background in Newtonian dynamics. It is also preferred to have background and interest in atmospheric dynamics and fluid turbulence. The atmospheric aspects of this project will delve into turbulent processes which also may have applications to weather, climate science,and other atmospheric events and in a very different direction, evolution of cosmic magnetic fields.

The smallest asteroids with the largest survey telescope

Colin Snodgrass, Bob Mann

The size distribution of comets or asteroids can reveal important clues about their formation processes. However, at the very smallest sizes, these distributions are uncertain, as it is hard to detect very small asteroids. The Vera Rubin Observatory’s LSST survey will discover many more comets and asteroids, but the smallest ones will still be hard to spot – they will only be detectable when near Earth, and therefore moving quickly across the sky, leaving a streaked image. This picture will be further complicated by the fact that many small artificial sources (satellites and space debris) will also produce streaks in survey images. This project is to investigate ways to efficiently detect and characterise very fast moving sources in LSST images, to distinguish between artificial objects in Earth orbit and close approaching small asteroids, and to use this data to better understand our Solar System and also our own near Earth environment.

This project would be suitable for someone with experience of both astronomy and space situational awareness.  Experience with astronomical image processing and statistics/machine learning would be a particular advantage.

Under the Astronomical Instrumentation PhD projects see also: