Planetary Atmospheres Research

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford Physics


Oxford has the leading planetary atmospheres group in Europe, covering mission design and support, scientific instrument development, advanced techniques for data analysis and interpretation, and modelling and theory of atmospheric radiation and dynamics. A particular strength, unmatched anywhere in the world, is the synthesis of experimental results in terms of basic atmospheric physics in ways that permit comparative studies between the planets and the Earth. The rolling grant for Planetary Atmospheres Research has supported this work for more than 20 years. It consolidates the broad areas defined above, supports involvement in space missions that (again uniquely in the world, for a university group) span the classical Solar System from Mercury to Saturn, including work on volatiles on virtually airless bodies including the Moon and comets. The group had major scientific and experimental roles in instigating the European Venus Express mission, the first orbiter to explore the atmosphere of Earth's neighbouring world in over 20 years. We now have an Interdisciplinary Scientist role involving mission design and instrument coordination to maximise science return, and data analysis and interpretation that is focussed on producing improved models of the energy balance in the lower atmosphere; validating and improving general circulation models; generating new climate evolution models using simple physics constrained by measurements; and comparative studies in all three areas with the other terrestrial planets. The atmosphere and climate of Mars continues to be a high priority area of activity, including the design and construction of the Mars Climate Sounder now operating around Mars. We contributed the in situ wind sensor for the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission, and are participating in the development of meteorological instrumentation for ESA's ExoMars mission. We operate some of the most sophisticated and realistic numerical circulation models of the Martian atmosphere, capable of simulating the day-to-day variations in Martian weather for the present day, and of investigating past and future climates. Ongoing work includes investigations of the structure, composition and dynamics of Jupiter and Saturn, and the only moon in the Solar System with a thick atmosphere, Titan, through our involvement in the Galileo and Cassini missions. For both missions we had a role in designing and developing the infrared instruments, and for Cassini we built the focal plane and radiative cooler for the spectrometer that delivers its high performance. The outer planet work, in particular, is supported by ground-based observations, and a programme of laboratory spectroscopic and fluid dynamical experiments. We worked with ESA on the development of the BepiColombo mission and with UK industry on studies of new low-cost missions to Mars and Venus. We, in collaboration with JPL, are building a new instrument, Diviner, for launch next year on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to map the thermal environment and volatiles on the Moon, especially in the polar regions that are being considered by NASA, and the UK through the new space exploration initiative, as the site for a manned base later in the next decade. We are developing models and data analysis tools for the VIRTIS spectrometer on Rosetta, which we designed with colleagues in Italy, France and Germany. By measuring the spectra of infrared emissions from the coma on arrival at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014 we plan to determine the volatile composition of the comet. A fifth lead researcher will be added to the group in October 2007 as the result of the recent creation of a new planetary post at University Lecturer level, now in the process of being filled. We are requesting a total of 10 PDRAs and 6 project studentships to support the 5 senior academics, plus 2 technical staff, one programmer/analyst, and equipment, consumables, and travel costs.


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