Understanding Origins at the Open University (UO@OU)

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Physical Sciences


Our research project is called Understanding Origins at the Open University; the origins that we wish to study are those of the Solar System, and how it evolved to allow life to arise. We already know a lot about how the Solar System came into being. The Sun and planets formed from a turbulent cloud of dust and gas about 4570 million years ago. The cloud collapsed, and as it flattened to a spinning disk, dust and gas spiralled inwards. The core of the disk became extremely hot, forming the Sun, and the leftover dust and gas formed the planets of our Solar System. Closest to the Sun are the small rocky planets, further away are the outer giant planets of gas and ice, separated by the Asteroid Belt: millions of objects made of rock,metal and organics. Collisions between asteroids cause fragments to be thrown out from the Asteroid Belt; occasionally falling to Earth as meteorites, or causing larger, more devastating impacts. In the outer Solar System, the temperature was sufficiently cold to allow water to solidify to ice. Comets (bodies of ice and dust mixed with organic compounds) are the left-over building blocks of the outer planets. If we know all this about our Solar System, what is there still to learn? We plan to study in detail certain aspects of Solar System history - what was the original dust made from that produced comets? What types of organic compounds were present? How have they been changed by collisions and radiation from the Sun and other stars? How has the ice been altered? We want to know about asteroids - how many small ones are there? what are their shapes, spin rates,and physical structures and how do they evolve?. Answers to these questions will help us understand better the chances of the Earth being hit by one - and maybe help us plan what to do about it. What are asteroids made from? Some asteroids got so hot that they melted and separated into bodies with metal cores and rocky crusts - how do they relate to asteroids that were never molten? Why are some unmelted meteorites rich in metal, whilst others are just rock? All these questions will help us understand the original cloud of gas and dust within which the planets formed, and which also contained the building blocks of life. Could life have got going on any other planets as well as Earth? What about Mars? Its crust was once cut by rivers and glaciers, but is now dry and dusty. The rivers produced minerals that can be seen by from satellites that orbit Mars. We also have rocks from Mars on Earth - chunks broken from the planet by asteroids hitting the surface. We can analyse the constituent minerals and learn about the water that produced some of them. We can also look for signatures of past biological activity has altered the rocks. But how do we start to answer these questions? In our laboratories, we use sensitive equipment to analyse meteorites that have come from the Asteroid Belt and from Mars. We study dust collected from high in the Earth's atmosphere and directly from a comet during a space mission. We do experiments to mimic some of the processes that asteroids and comets have suffered (e.g., being hit in collisions), and we use computers to make models of how asteroids and comets are affected by heat and by the Sun's radiation. We also collect data using instruments mounted on telescopes, and on spacecraft orbiting Mars. We build our own instruments to fly on space missions, and are constantly trying to make them smaller and lighter. We also explore ways in which some of the instruments can be used on Earth, for medical or security purposes. One of the most important benefits of our research is that it helps to train and inspire students to become the next generation of scientists and engineers. We also enjoy telling as many people as possible about the work that we do, and what we have learned from it about our origins.


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Abernethy F (2013) Stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen in angrites in Meteoritics & Planetary Science

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Abernethy F. A. J. (2011) A Preliminary Study of Magmatic Volatiles in Angrites in Meteoritics and Planetary Science Supplement

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Abernethy F. A. J. (2012) A Trapped Nitrogen Component in Angrites in Meteoritics and Planetary Science Supplement

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Abernethy F. A. J. (2013) The High-Temperature Release of Carbon and Nitrogen in the Angrites and its Relationship to Parent Body Degassing in Meteoritics and Planetary Science Supplement

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Abernethy F. A. J. (2013) Graphitic Raman Spectra in Angrites: A source of High-Temperature Carbon? in Meteoritics and Planetary Science Supplement

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Anand Mahesh (2014) Understanding the origin and evolution of water in the Moon through lunar sample studies in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series A

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Andrews D (2012) Ptolemy operations and results during the Lutetia flyby in Planetary and Space Science

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Barrett T (2016) The abundance and isotopic composition of water in eucrites in Meteoritics & Planetary Science

Description We have analysed interplanetary dust particles, tracing their origins back to comets. The research, along with work on meteorites and asteroid modelling, has had direct input to the Rosetta mission. Similarly, work on hydrous alteration of martian meteorites has influenced interpretation of data from martian space missions, and has contributed to a better understanding of how microorganisms interact with rocks, and the traces they leave behind.
Exploitation Route We have developed an instrument that is capable of determining the composition (elemental and isotopic) of gases. This has applications in many different fields, including health, security and defence. We have also worked on the effects of radiation on different materials, working in partnership with industry to develop new detectors that are more radiation resistant. Again, the applications of these detectors are manifold. The research is continuing with additional funds from non-RC funds, including medical charities and space agencies.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Education,Electronics,Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

URL http://www.open.ac.uk/science/physical-science/planetary-space-sciences
Description (1) Public engagement Numerous lectures, talks and school visits. PhD students become STEM ambassadors. (2) Instrument development and applications Additional funding from non-RC sources support development of spaceflight instrumentation for application in medical and defence areas
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Education,Healthcare
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

Description STERLIM
Amount € 300,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Space Agency 
Sector Public
Country France
Start 10/2015 
End 09/2017
Description Conversation pieces 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The OU was one of the first universities to support the daily news blog The Conversation (https://theconversation.com/uk). The site has the tag-line "Academic rigour, journalistic flair": academic specialists write the articles, which are edited for readability. This is the opposite from most news sites, in which journalists write the articles, relying on specialists to provide a quote. Five of the CoIs on the CG have written 61 articles in the past two years, which have been read a total of 1.5 million times; an additional 4 PDRA and 3 PhD students have written a further 13 articles, attracting 380,000 views. Every article is accompanied by the text 'X receives funding from the STFC'. One of the CoIs (Grady) has a column on the site, which is syndicated to the US and Australian editions of the news site, gaining a wider coverage for the articles. At the current rate of growth of the site, it is anticipated that there is likely to be at least one article per week from CG staff, their PDRA and students, gaining a global coverage for their research.

Updated in March 2017: the PI alone has had more than a million reads of her articles
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016
URL https://theconversation.com/uk
Description Public Lectures 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The PI, MMG, has given between about 30 public lectures, talks and school visits each year since forever. Following the successful Rosetta mission, she has given around 50 such presentations a year, leading to animated discussions about comets and other extraterrestrial bodies, the value of space exploration as an incentive for studying science and engineering, technological developments and spin outs from space missions and the cost of space exploration when weighed against other calls on the public purse.

At almost every lecture, MMG receives additional invitations to give talks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010,2011,2012,2013
Description Royal Society Summer Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Royal Society Summer Exhibition takes place over 7 days in central London. In 2014, we led a consortium of institutions to produce an exhibit about comets and the Rosetta mission, and also were a partner in an exhibition about GAIA. In 2015, we again led a consortium exhibition about Rosetta and comets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2016