A Consolidated Grant Proposal for Solar System Research at the University of Leicester (2016-2019)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Physics and Astronomy


We propose a world-class programme of research that focuses on two main areas of study concerned with our solar system. The first involves study of the outer environments of the planets where the gas is in the plasma (ionized) state, such that it not only feels the gravitational pull of the planet, but also interacts strongly with its magnetic field. In the second area we seek to study the origin and development of solar system bodies, and the impact on the evolution of life, through detailed examination of the composition of samples from comets, asteroids, and Mars, that are returned by spacecraft for study at Earth, or examined in situ during planetary exploration missions.
Previous work in the first area shows that the outer environments of the planets vary widely, determined by the interaction with the plasma wind that blows continuously from the Sun on the outside, and the interaction with the planet and its moons on the inside. The solar wind is prone to outbursts that can lead to magnetic storms and bright auroras at Earth, as well as varying strongly over the 11-year solar cycle, and with distance from the Sun. Its interaction with the planets then depends on whether the planet is magnetised, has an atmosphere, and has active moons orbiting close in. We will use spacecraft data to study Mercury close to the Sun that has a magnetic field but almost no atmosphere (MESSENGER mission), Mars further away that has an atmosphere but no strong magnetic field to prevent its erosion by the solar wind (Mars Express and MAVEN), and Earth at intermediate distances having both an atmosphere and a magnetic field (using data from a number of missions including the auroral-imaging IMAGE and Polar satellites, and the Iridium satellite constellation). We will also study the strongly magnetized giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, using data from the new Juno mission at Jupiter and Cassini at Saturn, combined with observations of the auroras at ultraviolet wavelengths using the Hubble Space Telescope and at infrared wavelengths using large ground-based telescopes. Auroras are caused by large-scale electric currents flowing between the outer environments and the upper ionized atmospheres, which communicate force between these regions. Overall emphasis will be on the complex physical processes that couple the solar wind on the outside, the magnetic field surrounding the planet (if any), and the planetary atmosphere or surface on the inside. In a related project we also propose to develop a flight-ready compact low mass ultraviolet imager that can be used to study the auroras at Earth and elsewhere, as well as for wider applications.
Research on the origins and evolution of solar system bodies builds on the expertise we have developed in the microanalysis of micron-sized samples of planetary materials, through a unique combination of electron microscopy and synchrotron-based X-ray spectroscopy. Such techniques are essential due to the small amounts of material returned from solar system bodies such as S-class asteroid Itokawa (Hayabusa mission) and Comet 81P/Wild2 (Stardust mission), studies of both forming part of our programme. Analysis of such grains offers the chance to provide a direct comparison to known primitive meteorite types and to reveal the processes that shaped the earliest stages of the solar system. We will also use these techniques to study a recently discovered Martian meteorite which will allow us to constrain the thermal and water-rock interaction history in a sample of Martian impact regolith for the first time. In a related area we also propose to develop an astrobiology instrument that will be able to detect organic compounds and minerals. The primary aim will be to build a miniaturized analytical instrument that can be configured for both in-situ and remote analysis and will be suitable for inclusion in future planetary exploration missions such as those planned by NASA and ESA.

Planned Impact

The Radio & Space Plasma Physics (RSPP) and Space Research Centre (SRC) team involved in this proposal has specialist skills and experience which are of direct use to external users. Exploitation is strongly supported by the Department of Physics and Astronomy of which we form part, which is in turn a member of the College of Science and Engineering, which plays a leading role in the Enterprise Agenda for the University of Leicester. Within this context, the Department is supported by an Enterprise and Business Development Office, which works with academics and external stakeholders to create maximum impact in the local, national, and international community. The team also places great emphasis on outreach through a range of activities. Specific outcomes and plans are as follows.
Knowledge Exchange
Working with Industrial and Other Partners: Development of space instrumentation requires direct links with industry, both international companies such as Airbus Defence & Space, TAS-UK, and e2V, and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as space agencies. Consultancy work with such partners spans areas from X-ray optic design to sample sealing techniques. The expertise of the SRC in sensors is a major basis for such long-term relationships, working via formal collaborative agreements with both Airbus and Leicester-based SME Magna Parva Ltd. Collaborations are also in place with the National Nuclear Laboratory, Sellafield, RAL, and InterCare. The longest link, with Photonis the microchannel plate manufacturer, dates to 1969. EU, ESA, and Airbus collaborations are also important in our Horizon2020 planetary sample curation facility activities.
Working with Research Councils: Members of the SRC have been successful in winning KE Fellowships from STFC and NERC. These have formed an important part of our impact work and will continue to act as catalysts for future impact plans.
Spin-Off Companies and Contracts: Spin-off company Gamma Technologies is transferring space-related detector technologies to the energy-resolved detection of cancers in surgery. Additional avenues for KE now being explored relate to the UV imager and astrobiology components of this proposal. The UV optic of the auroral imager can, e.g., be replaced by a visible wavelength element, with application to maritime domain awareness. Similarly, the microanalysis techniques developed for the planetary materials programme are also used in contract work for optics companies. The RSPP group regularly gains external contracts to build HF radio and radar systems, and trains MoD personnel in ionospheric radio propagation.
Highlights include close involvement in the activities of the National Space Centre in Leicester, providing media appearances on high profile space missions such as MSL and the Rosetta/Philae comet encounter, and acting as East Midlands regional focus for the 2013 and 2014 BBC Stargazing Live events. Planned activities during the interval of this proposal include the following.
National Space Centre: We plan sustained involvement in the programmes of the NSC, such as the STFC-funded outreach project on seismicity on Mars.
National Space Academy: Team members contribute to the NSA, which teaches A-levels for a cohort of students interested in space science careers.
UK Space Schools: We help organise and host an annual residential school which attracts ~120 students age 14-18 to an intensive week of space-related activities.
BBC Stargazing Live: Having been centrally involved in both the 2013 and 2014 events, we are now planning our contribution to Stargazing Live 2015.
Planeterrella: School and festival activities will continue around the artificial aurorae 'planeterrella' experiment led by Dr Provan.
Leicester Physics Centre: Evening lectures aimed at the public, sponsored by the IoP, led by Dr Wright, draw audiences of up to 350. A special 2015 series will be run for the International Year of Light.


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Achterberg R (2018) Thermal Emission From Saturn's Polar Cyclones in Geophysical Research Letters

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Antuñano A (2018) Infrared Characterization of Jupiter's Equatorial Disturbance Cycle in Geophysical Research Letters

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Azari A (2019) Are Saturn's Interchange Injections Organized by Rotational Longitude? in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Bader A (2018) Statistical Planetary Period Oscillation Signatures in Saturn's UV Auroral Intensity in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Bader A (2019) Modulations of Saturn's UV Auroral Oval Location by Planetary Period Oscillations in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Bader A (2019) The Dynamics of Saturn's Main Aurorae in Geophysical Research Letters

Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation Imperial College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution As Co-Investigators on the Cassini MAG instrument, the Leicester group has a deep involvement in the analysis of data from that instrument.
Collaborator Contribution Other members of the team contribute by running the instrument, including calibrations, as well as producing scientific research.
Impact A substantial number of papers have been published and these can be found under relevant sections of the research fish submission.
Description Mars Upper Atmosphere Network 
Organisation Uppsala University
Department Department of Physics and Astronomy
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The Mars Upper Atmosphere Network (MUAN) brings together research groups fropm around teh world interested in upper atmosphere research at Mars. The group is led by Uppsala and Leicester.
Collaborator Contribution Other groups bring data analysis and mdoelling skills to MUAN to complement those existing at Leicester and Uppsala.
Impact Research Papers Campaigns with Mars Express Formation and Leadership of ISSI team
Start Year 2009