Planetary Science at The Open University, 2023-26

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


Our proposed research programme studies the origin and evolution of the Solar System, investigating the physical, geological, chemical and biological processes on the terrestrial planets, the Moon, asteroids, comets and icy satellites across 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 planets of our Solar System had a common origin, but the differences we observe now reveal variation in the building blocks they formed from and subsequent divergent histories. We propose projects to study many of these objects, including Mercury, Venus, the Moon, asteroids, meteorites, Europa, Enceladus and comets. Our research utilises the increasing wealth of data created by ever more sophisticated space exploration missions, new sample return missions providing materials previously not available to us, new advances in laboratory based analyses and simulation and powerful new surface and atmospheric models. We use all these tools to understand the planetary building blocks and planet formation processes. We investigate the delivery and evolution of water and other key elements for life, to the Earth and to the icy ocean moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and we also explore the surfaces and atmospheres of planetary bodies to unveil the details of their history.

The eleven projects in this proposal are as follows:. Project A investigates the abundance and composition of volatiles in the Moon to understand its origin and how water and other volatiles were acquired in the Earth-Moon system. Project B will study samples returned from a primitive asteroid by the OSIRIS-REx mission to understand the behaviour of water during the earliest stages of planet formation. Project C will study carbon and nitrogen in angrite meteorites, very old volcanic rocks that formed in the vicinity of Earth, to understand the history of these elements throughout planet formation. Project D will perform detailed analysis of rare samples of cometary dust to investigate the nature of comets, and the geological processes that occurred within them. Project E will investigate the occurrence of recently discovered, low density, boulders on asteroids and the implications these have for planet formation processes and planetary defence. Project F will develop new software to automatically characterise boulder populations on planetary surfaces to better understand cratering rates, used to determine the age of planetary surfaces. Project G uses global climate modelling to investigate how trace gas species are transported through the atmosphere of Venus to determine whether variations of sulfur species can be attributed to active volcanic processes. Project H will use low angle illumination images captured by BepiColombo during swingbys of Mercury to investigate low relief features difficult to observe from normal orbits. Project J will investigate the nature of ices and minerals formed during ice volcanism on Europa using laboratory simulations to understand the brine ocean origin of the resultant observed surface deposits. Project K aims to determine the volatile organic compounds generated by microorganisms in the conditions present in the sub-surface oceans of Europa and Enceladus, and how they may be detected in volcanic ice plumes. Project L will investigate the forms and transport of carbon and sulfur in the sub-surface ocean moon Enceladus, and their availability to support life in that environment.

We use the results of our research to engage with the public, to stimulate interest and understanding of STEM subjects and help to train and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers through a range of activities, including the University's unique relationship with the BBC. We also will continue to develop new partnerships with industry to maximise the breadth of those benefiting from our research.


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