Planetary Science at The Open University 2020-2023

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Faculty of Sci, Tech, Eng & Maths (STEM)


Our proposed research programme studies the origin and evolution of the Solar System, including surfaces, atmospheres and physical, geological, chemical and biological processes, in a range of projects which address the STFC Science Roadmap challenge B: "How do stars and planetary systems develop and is life unique to our planet?"

The inner rocky bodies of the Solar System are of particular importance in understanding planetary system evolution, because of their common origin within the protoplanetary disk, but subsequent divergent histories. We propose projects to study all extra-terrestrial rocky objects in the inner Solar System (Mercury, Venus, the Moon, asteroids, meteorites and interplanetary dust), with the exception of Mars, which is funded through the UK Space Agency's Aurora programme. The question of whether Earth is a unique location for life in the Solar System remains one of the most enduring questions of our time. We propose projects to investigate microbiological environments in impact craters and the icy satellites of the giant planets.

Project A investigates the abundance, composition, sources and evolution of volatiles in the Moon, which are of importance for understanding the Moon's origin and their key role for in-situ resource utilisation for future lunar exploration. Project B aims to identify the mechanisms and locations of the formation of chondrules (small, spherical silicate objects predominant in primitive meteorites that retain information about the earliest stages of the planetary formation process). Project C will study carbon compounds in primitive carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, to investigate whether primordial organic material was produced in the interstellar medium or the protoplanetary disk. Project D addresses the challenge of exploitation of massive, high-resolution planetary imaging data sets, by using a deep-learning system to investigate the properties of lunar impact craters, and test the effectiveness and wider applicability of such tools for planetary surface analysis. Project E uses a combination of observations and global climate modelling to investigate how trace gas species are transported through the atmosphere of Venus and hence determine whether the variations of sulfur dioxide can be attributed to active volcanic processes. Project F uses NASA MESSENGER mission data to map and interpret the geology of Mercury's poorly observed south polar region, which exhibits crustal evolution features appartently different from the north polar region, and prepare for ESA's BepiColombo mission. Project G involves a search for the effects of the YORP effect (non-uniform emission of heat and scattering of sunlight) a mechanism for spin changes, mobility of surface material, mass loss and asteroid binary and pair production. Project H aims to determine the conditions in the subsurface of an impact crater site and which bio-signatures could be used as evidence for whether post-impact hydrothermal systems drive habitability on young terrestrial planets. Project K aims to determine whether life could produce unique bio-signatures within the sub-surface oceans of Europa and Enceladus using laboratory simulation experiments and geochemical modelling.

In addition to satisfying humanity's innate desire to explore and understand the Universe around us, our research has more tangible benefits. We use the analytical techniques involved from development of space and laboratory instrumentation for applications with companies in fields as diverse as medicine, security, tourism and cosmetics. One of the most important benefits of our research is that it helps to train and inspire students - the next generation of scientists and engineers - through training within the University, public and schools' outreach, and through individual programmes and whole series resulting from the University's unique relationship with the BBC.

Planned Impact

Open University (OU) has a mission to be "open as to people, places, methods and ideas" and our Pathways to Impact Plan holds closely to this ideal, with specific Pathways focussed on Commerce and the Economy, Lifelong Learning and Participation and Creativity, Culture and Society.

The OU has recently approved a Research & Enterprise Plan, a Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation Map and an Intellectual Property Strategy - to enable researchers to translate their work to external stakeholders. We are supported by the Faculty's Research, Enterprise and Scholarship Team (REST) and the OU's Academic Lead for Engaged Research, Professor Rick Holliman (author of the Review into STFC Public Engagement). The business-focused end of our operation is guided by our Impact Lead (Dr Geraint Morgan), who advises on business opportunities and also co-ordinates allocation of funds from our STFC Impact Accelerator Award.

Knowledge Exchange: our KE Pathway to Impact is through Commerce and the Economy which we will pursue through collaborations with the public (UKSA, ESA, etc.) and private (e.g., AirBus, Thales-Alena) sectors. Around 10 start-up companies have been established in the planetary and space science area, working closely with OU staff to develop spin-offs from our space instrumentation programme.

Our plans for future exploitation of our research build on areas where our expertise and instrument development capabilities are securing funding. We are part of the recently-established SPace Research and Innovation Network for Technology (SPRINT), funded by a £5M award from Research England's Connecting Capability Fund (£800k share to the OU). Partners include the UK Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult and the STFC and seeks to engage with SME to develop business applications arising from our research.

Communication and Outreach: We have two planned strategies for ensuring that our research makes an impact on as wide an audience as possible. The first is through Lifelong Learning and Participation, and our main beneficiary is the general public (all ages and educational backgrounds) who wish to take a structured introduction to a subject. We use MOOCS (Massive Open On-line Courses; to share and advertise our research and teaching to a wide and international audience. The second is to enhance the impact from our research by communication and outreach, a pathway through Creativity, Culture and Society. This strand encompasses our engagement and media work, and the main beneficiaries are school students (at all levels of the curriculum), amateur societies and the general public.

The OU has a unique (amongst HEIs) agreement with the BBC, in which the OU co-produces up to 30 TV and radio series a year, about a third of which support STEM subjects. A summary of our broadcast contributions is at

Forthcoming events related to our research that will attract media attention, include: launch of NASA's Mars-2020 and ESA's ExoMars missions; return of material from Asteroid Ryugu by the Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission; 2022 launch of ESA's JUICE mission to Jupiter and its icy moons; return of lunar samples by the Chinese Chang'e 5 spacecraft. We will use these as vehicles for publicising our research on Solar System bodies.

We plan to expand our annual Moon Night, which engages the local community (schools and public) with our planetary science research, to two full days to hold dedicated workshops for secondary school students and to accommodate increasing demand.

One of the priorities for the CG is a more active social media presence. By combining metrics across all social media, we will build up a timeline of our activities, generate a database of interested contacts, and allow us to monitor how different aspects of our research attract attention, and which audiences engage.


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