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Detecting potential bio-signatures for Enceladus

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  • Full or part time
    Dr K Olsson-Francis
    Dr V Pearson
    Dr S Schwenzer
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This project will investigate the feasibility of detecting organic biosignatures in the plumes of Enceladus using laboratory simulation experiments, including in the presence and absence of microorganisms.

Project Highlights:
• Microbial growth experiments using stateof-the-art simulation facilities.
• Pioneering hypervelocity dust experiments that can be applied to understanding data returned from the Cassini mission.
• Training in interdisciplinary techniques including microbiology, geochemistry and organic geochemistry.


The plumes emitted from the south polar region of Enceladus have been investigated extensively by the Cassini mission. Returned data implies they are fed by a global ocean situated below an ice shell atop a silicate interior.

Further information regarding the sub-surface ocean has been obtained from the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument, which detected water, ammonia, molecular hydrogen, simple organic compounds, and possibly sulfur; whilst higher molecular weight organic molecules, salts, biologically available nitrogen, and nanosilica particles have been detected in plume ice grains by the Cosmic Dust Analyzer. Based on these observations, it is predicted that all of the key elements required for life, e.g., C, N, O, P and S are expected to be present in the sub-surface ocean since they have either been detected in the plumes or are expected to be present due to water-rock interaction at the ocean floor. Hence, Enceladus is of interest from an astrobiology perspective.

Although the sub-surface ocean may be deemed habitable, finding evidence of life is dependent on detecting the bio-signatures that are uniquely produced by microbial life. The aim of this studentship is to therefore determine the feasibility of detecting these unique bio-signatures being detected in the plume. This will involve using a combination of simulation facilities at the Open University, Freie University Berlin and the University of Stuttgart to: 1) identify bio-signatures that would uniquely be produced by life in the oceans and 2) investigate the appearance and modification of molecular bio-signatures during plume emission and mass spectrometric analysis from a space craft.

Eligibility and Requirements

E3 studentships are available to UK and EU applicants. A first degree at grade 2:1 or equivalent in a relevant science subject is required. A Masters degree (MSc or integrated MSci) or equivalent experience is desirable.

How to apply

We strongly advise you to contact the lead supervisor of the project(s) that interests you before submitting an application. The application process requires you to send an email to the following email address:

[Email Address Removed]

Please attach the following items to your email:
(1) a cover letter outlining why the project is of interest and how your skills match those required,
(2) your CV and contact details of 3 academic references,
(3) a E3 application form, and
(4) a completed Home OU application form (if you are resident in the UK or European Economic Area).

Closing date for applications: 30th September 2019 at (12pm, noon)

Interviews will take place between 21st and 28th October 2019, anticipated start date is 1st February 2020.

We promote diversity in employment and welcome applications from all sections of the community, particularly from groups that are otherwise underrepresented in academic communities.

Funding Notes

Astrobiology OU has recently been awarded £6.7 million by Research England to develop their capacity. This will allow the group to expand to bring together expertise in technology, international development and governance to address the scientific and governance challenges associated with the advancement of astrobiology and related space exploration missions. The funding for these studentships comes from this grant and covers a 3 year stipend, and a £8000 stipend for research and travel. The student will also benefit from a number of career development opportunities organized for all members of the group.

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