Space and planetary physics 2019-2022

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Dept of Physics


We will carry out a wide range of research projects which will answer important questions about our solar system and the planets within it. We will also study the links between the Sun and interplanetary space through the solar wind, as well as how they affect space around the Earth. Space is filled with small amounts of hot charged particles, called a plasma, along with a magnetic field, so much of the work we do is fundamental plasma physics applied to space and the processes that we study occur throughout the Universe.

In our work we will study the fundamental plasma process of reconnection, which releases magnetic energy and is important in allowing plasma from the Sun, the solar wind, to enter near-Earth space. We will also use new data from spacecraft travelling close to the Sun to examine how fine scale structure on the Sun extends out into space. We will study how discrete releases of material from the Sun evolve as they travel into interplanetary space; when they reach the Earth, these objects can cause significant disruption to technological systems on the ground and in Earth orbit.

We will also consider other bodies in the solar system, both small and large. We will continue to model the environment around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Gerasimenko in order to interpret the rich Rosetta dataset and use measurements of Saturn's magnetic field to probe its interior dynamics. We will consider how the planetary fields of Jupiter and Saturn link into the space around them, and model the interactions between the solar wind plasma and the outer gas giants Uranus and Neptune.

These are important topics to study not just because they provide new insight into fundamental physical processes which we do not fully understand, but also because of their effects on our lives, on other areas of science and of what they tell us about our Universe. Our work on plasma physics is related to both laboratory work on the Earth as well as many astrophysical objects such as stars and the space between the galaxies. Our work on giant planets and moons helps us to better characterise the processes that occur on and around exoplanets.

While we use theoretical models and computer simulations for some of our work, we also make extensive use of measurements returned from spacecraft in orbit around the Earth, around other planets and around the Sun. In many cases, these measurements are made wholly or in part by scientific instruments designed, built and operated by our laboratory here at Imperial College. London. Our expertise is in making instruments that measure the magnetic field in space - although it is very small, often hundreds of thousands of times smaller than the Earth's, this magnetic field is vital because it interacts with the charged particles in the plasma and it is this interaction that produces the broad range of behaviour that we observe.

As part of this proposal, we will also improve on our magnetic field instrument designs, making them more stable and accurate for a future generation of scientific missions, to the outer planets and elsewhere in the Solar System.

Planned Impact

Our work has a wide range of impacts across society, government and business.

We enhance the quality of life of wider society through our extensive public engagement. Space is a compelling subject and with our expertise and involvement in some of the most exciting discoveries in the field, we play an active role in explaining new results and enthusing the public, both young and old. Our location in central London means that we are in demand for broadcast interviews on national and international media on a regular basis. We also engage directly with schools and via other routes, including Imperial's Fringe public events which regularly attract hundreds of visitors. Being next to the Science Museum, we are regularly involved with their engagement activities such as the Principia launch event, loaning and donating space hardware for display, and contributing to an upcoming major exhibition on the Sun. We have also found value in social media, for example setting up a research group Twitter account which continues to extend our reach.

We enhance the nation's wealth principally through our engagement with industry. Our hardware programme has resulted in miniature magnetometers with diverse applications. Through STFC, TSB and NSTP funding, we have collaborated with Ultra Electronics and developed and refined our design for commercial applications, which has now been licensed for satellite attitude determination to NewSpace Systems via Imperial Innovations; this development won the 2016 NMI Research Collaboration Award. We have also identified and are actively investigating other, non-space applications. A CASE studentship with Airbus has successfully transferred magnetic cleanliness expertise into that organisation, for Solar Orbiter and future projects.

We train the next generation of scientists and engineers to support the UK's goal of growing the space economy to 10% by 2030, and the knowledge economy more generally. Our research attracts high-quality school students to Imperial College, and students at Imperial gain further knowledge through working directly with us. As well as following traditional academic careers, PhD students have pursued a variety of careers in IT, finance, management and business.

We support government through our contributions to the understanding and prediction of space weather effects. In addition to relevant fundamental research, we actively collaborate with the Met Office on modelling of the Earth's magnetosphere and its response to solar wind variations, with the explicit goal of improving predictions of space weather effects. We also collaborate with Imperial's Business School on the commercial and governmental aspects of risk modelling of space weather events.


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Description BBC Radio 4 In Our Time (Solar Wind: 23 Jan 2020) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact One of three members of In Our Time episode on the solar wind, broadcast 23 Jan 2020 on BBC Radio 4. Producer reports the following engagement figures:

Circa 2 million hear it live, around 400,000 later that evening, around 800,000 downloaded and listen to within a week.,
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020