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Exploring the Atmospheres of the Giant Planets with James Webb

Department of Physics and Astronomy

, Wednesday, January 20, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled for launch near the start of this PhD programme, is set to revolutionise our understanding of planetary atmospheres in this Solar System and beyond. Its 6.5-m diameter shielded mirror, combined with state-of-the-art infrared instrumentation, will provide exquisite observations of Solar System targets. Researchers at the University of Leicester were directly involved in the development of the MIRI instrument (5-30 micron spectroscopy in the mid-infrared), and Leicester planetary scientists have unique access to guaranteed-time observations of all four giant planets, to be acquired during the first year of operations (2021-22).
The PhD candidate would be welcomed to a team of planetary atmospheres researchers at Leicester, to be trained in inversions of infrared spectroscopy to extract useful information on temperatures, chemical distributions, clouds, and atmospheric dynamics. The student will use a well-developed suite of radiative transfer and spectral inversion tools (known as NEMESIS) to compare previous spacecraft observations of Jupiter and Saturn to the highly-anticipated new data from JWST. The spatial distributions of gases will allow the student freedom to pursue a variety of scientific questions: (i) the ratios of key elemental abundances and isotope ratios to constrain planetary origins; (ii) the use of condensable volatiles (like ammonia) and disequilibrium species (like phosphine) to track changes in atmospheric dynamics (e.g., belts and zones, and large-scale structures like Jupiter's Great Red Spot and Saturn's polar hexagon); and (iii) the coupling of jovian weather with the chemically-rich middle atmospheres of the giant planets. Through these studies, the student will gain skills in processing and manipulating spacecraft data, extensive software development, and will have the opportunity to engage with the wider community of planetary observers across the globe.
JWST observations will be supplemented by a campaign of ground-based supporting observations from world-leading facilities (e.g., observatories in Chile and Hawaii). Given the risks involved with the JWST mission, this studentship can still be undertaken with existing spacecraft data (primarily from Cassini and Juno), supplemented by our ongoing programme of ground-based planetary astronomy.
With Leicester's current involvement in Juno and JWST, and future involvement in the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), this Planetary Science PhD project offers the potential for exciting new discoveries on the giant planets. Successful PhD candidates would have some prior background in coding, as they will be using Fortran, IDL, and Python-based packages on Leicester's High-Performance Computing facility. Some prior knowledge of planetary atmospheric science and radiative transfer is desirable.

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject.
The University of Leicester English language (URL:
requirements apply where applicable.

Application advice

To apply please refer to
With your application, please include:
• CV
• Personal statement explaining your interest in the project, your experience and why we should consider you
• Degree Certificates and Transcripts of study already completed and if possible transcript to date of study currently being undertaken
• Evidence of English language proficiency if applicable
• In the reference section please enter the contact details of your two academic referees in the boxes provided or upload letters of reference if already available.
• STFC Research Interests Form 2021, to be completed online at
In the funding section please specify that you wish to be considered for Ref STFC 2021
In the proposal section please provide the name of the supervisors and project title (a proposal is not required)

Project / Funding Enquiries:
Application enquiries to

Funding Notes

This research project is one of a number of projects in the School of Physics. It is in competition for STFC funding with one or more of these projects. Usually the project which receives the best applicant will be awarded the funding.
This project is eligible for a fully funded STFC studentship which includes :
• A full UK fee waiver for 3.5 years
• An annual tax free stipend of £15,285 (2020/2021)
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)
• Conference Fees & UK Fieldwork fund


Press releases on Leicester involvement in JWST Jupiter ( and Saturn ( observations.
1. D. Andrews, An Introduction to Atmospheric Physics, Cambridge University Press
2. P.G.J. Irwin, Giant Planets of our Solar System, Springer-Praxis
3. Fletcher et al. (2019), How well do we understand the belt/zone circulation of Giant Planet atmospheres? (
4. Sanchez-Lavega, An Introduction to Planetary Atmospheres, Taylor & Francis.

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