A Consolidated Grant Proposal for Solar and Planetary Science at the University of Leicester, 2019 - 2022

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

Abstract

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 Mars, which will provide information on the way in which the surface of the planet has evolved, interactions with water, and interactions between surface and the atmosphere.
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 (Iridium satellite constellation, van Allen probes, Arase) and ground based facilities (SuperDARN and SuperMAG). We will also study the strongly magnetized giant planets Jupiter and Saturn 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. Finally, using a combination of electron microscopy and synchrotron-based X-ray spectroscopy of meteorites and experiments on analogue-fluid reactions, we will provide the most detailed mineralogical analyses and formation models of martian meteorite carbonates and co-existing clays. From this, we will address the nature of martian hydrothermal crustal fluids, and test associated current models for the ancient atmosphere. Thirdly, key processes in the formation of the martian igneous crust, in particular the formation of the main melt types, will be constrained by modelling meteorite and lander data, enabling comparisons to differentiation on other planets.

Planned Impact

Our Pathways to Impact Plan has three aims: (1) To create a space technology cluster in the East Midlands which can respond to shifts in the global space sector. (2) To ensure that current links with external research users in industry and the public sector are fostered and new links developed. This includes aligning our Masters level teaching with the needs of the space sector. (3) To build on our successful outreach programme. The applicants involved in this proposal have specialist skills and experience of direct use to external users. The proposed Solar System science provides a strong platform for public engagement, knowledge transfer, and working with industry. Building on our existing heritage of impact, the specialist skills and unique expertise of those involved in this grant proposal will be accessible and identifiable to public, commercial, and government users. The research within this proposal is aligned with the Enterprise Agenda for the University, and our academics are strongly supported to create maximum impact in local, national, and international communities by the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the newly-set-up Leicester Institute for Space and Earth Observation (LISEO), and the University. UoL is developing Space Park Leicester (SPL) to provide an excellent, collaborative new environment for industry, academia and the public. SPL is funded by UoL, Leicestershire Economic Partnership, and Midlands Engine and construction is planned to start in Jan. 2019 close to the National Space Centre (NSC). The applicants are taking leading roles in the planning and delivery of SPL, addressing new challenges for space science by working with industry to develop a facility to lower the cost of access to space by introducing greater automation in spacecraft production, and greatly reduce manufacturing and testing times.
Working with Industrial and Other Partners: Members of our group work productively with many industrial partners including international companies such as Airbus, Teledyne-e2v, and TAS-UK, Lockheed Martin, and smaller entities (SMEs), as well as space agencies, e.g. NASA, ESA, JAXA, and CSA. Our portfolio of collaborative projects with industry has grown in the planetary science domain, particularly in areas associated with sample return missions, planetary protection, Mars science and lunar science. In addition, we are actively working with industry to develop commercial spacecraft for LEO constellations. A new industrial collaboration with the European space nuclear power programme is a result of the confluence of the world class nuclear and space industries in the UK, in which the UoL is a key partner. Partnerships with the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory, and SMEs including European Thermodynamics are part of our impact plan.
Spin-Off Companies and Contracts: The 6 KE Fellowships from STFC and NERC won since 2009 will continue to act as catalysts for our impact, being responsible for one of our spin-off companies, Gamma Technologies. This company has recently increased its secured investment, and is engaged with an industry partner with clinical trials of a pre-commercial device underway. Additional developments for knowledge exchange in the next 3 years will include medical diagnostics and devices including cannula design, ventricular assist pumps, urine and pain monitoring.
Outreach: Our outreach strategy is closely linked to that of the NSC and its 300,000 annual visitors, tying in to major future events e.g. the Planets360 RAS200 event, launch of BepiColombo, James Webb Space Telescope, launch and landing of ExoMars. Group members are on the Board of Trustees and Operating Company, and advise on the regeneration of exhibits e.g. martian meteorites, Gas Giants. The National Space Academy is a University-NSC partnership using outstanding school teachers and UoL researchers to boost teacher effectiveness and enhance STEM uptake.

Publications

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