Future Proof Space Traffic Management Data Systems (Ref: NUDATA24/EE/MPEE/TOWNSON)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Dr Matthew Townson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Overview of the CDT

This project is being offered as part of the STFC Centre for Doctoral Training in Data Intensive Science, called NUdata, which is a collaboration between Northumbria and Newcastle Universities, STFC, and a portfolio of over 40 industrial partners, including SMEs, large/multinational companies, Government and not-for profit organisations, and international humanitarian organisations. Please visit https://research.northumbria.ac.uk/nudata/ for full information.

Project Description

The number of objects in low earth orbit (LEO) is increasing at an exponential rate. Mega-constellations, such as Starlink and Kuiper, will add thousands of satellites to the LEO space environment. As space becomes more congested space traffic management becomes increasingly important. There are several academic and industrial entities which measure the positions and orbits of space objects and publish this information.

The standard way of storing this data is through TLEs (two-line elements). This format limits the precision to which orbits can be known and the existing catalogues are not necessarily scalable to cope with the large increase in satellites. Websites such as space track (https://space-track.org) and Celes Track (https://celestrak.org) host up to date orbit information on all catalogued space objects. However, even with recent updates to the catalogues there are still several limitations in the orbital data. Chiefly among these is the precision to which objects can be found using TLE data. In this PhD we will look at ways to enhance the accuracy and precision of satellite orbital catalogues, potentially creating new catalogues with the sole purpose of satellite collision predictions. This includes the infrastructure around how to store and add to large amounts of data, and the reconstruction of orbital data from observation data. You will builds on skills on data analysis, computer programming, and numerical methods that you have developed through your undergraduate studies, or similar experience. At Northumbria University we have several links to related industry, including 3S Northumbria Ltd (https://northumbrianspace.co.uk) which you will have the opportunity to work with.

We welcome applicants with backgrounds in Physics, applied Mathematics, or related disciplines. Scientific computing (preferably in Python) and knowledge of database systems will be required. However, training will be provided to gain all the skills needed to successfully complete your project. You will be part of a welcoming and supportive research group with a range of research interests in Space, Satellites, Space weather, and astronomy. There are a range of seminars, journal clubs and other group activities to support you to grow as an independent researcher. You will get the opportunity to attend summer schools in the UK and Europe to further your subject-specific knowledge, and we will enable you to travel to international conferences and workshops to present your findings, expand your research network and be inspired by new perspectives.

Academic Enquiries

This project is supervised by Matthew Townson. For informal queries, please contact [Email Address Removed]. For all other enquiries relating to eligibility or application process please contact Admissions at [Email Address Removed]. 

Recruitment Event

You will join a strong and supportive research team. To help better understand the aims of the CDT and to meet the PhD supervisors, we are hosting a day-long event on campus on Monday 15th January 2024. At that event, there will be an opportunity to discuss your research ideas, meet potential PhD supervisors, as well as hear from speakers from a variety of backgrounds (academia, industry, government, charity) discussing both STFC and data science as well as their personal paths and backgrounds. Click here for details.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities with preference for 1st class honours); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above);
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.

To be classed as a Home student, candidates must:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter.

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student. 

Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

  • Immigration Health Surcharge https://www.gov.uk/healthcare-immigration-application
  • If you need to apply for a Student Visa to enter the UK, please refer to https://www.gov.uk/student-visa. It is important that you read this information carefully as it is your responsibility to ensure that you hold the correct funds required for your visa application, otherwise your visa may be refused.
  • Costs associated with English Language requirements which may be required for students not having completed a first degree in English, will not be paid by the University.

For further details on how to apply see


You must include the relevant advert reference (e.g. NUDATA24/…) in your application.

If you are interested in more than one of the Northumbria-hosted NUdata research projects, then you can say this in the cover letter of your application and you can rank up all the projects you are interested in (e.g. first choice, second choice, third choice). You are strongly encouraged to do this, since some projects are more popular than others. You only need to submit one application even if you are interested in multiple projects (we recommend you submit your application to your first choice).

Deadline for applications : 31st January 2024

Start date of course :  23rd September 2024

Northumbria University is committed to creating an inclusive culture where we take pride in, and value, the diversity of our postgraduate research students. We encourage and welcome applications from all members of the community. The University holds a bronze Athena Swan award in recognition of our commitment to advancing gender equality, we are a Disability Confident Leader, a member of the Race Equality Charter and are participating in the Stonewall Diversity Champion Programme. We also hold the HR Excellence in Research award for implementing the concordat supporting the career Development of Researchers and are members of the Euraxess initiative to deliver information and support to professional researchers.

Computer Science (8) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

The 4-year studentship is available to Home and international (including EU) students and includes a full stipend at UKRI rates (for 2023/24 full-time study this was £18,622 per year) and full tuition fees. Studentships are also available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis in combination with work or personal responsibilities.


James Osborn, Laurence Blacketer, Matthew J Townson, Ollie J D Farley, Astrosat: forecasting satellite transits for optical astronomical observations, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 509, Issue 2, January 2022, Pages 1848–1853, https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stab3003
Recommendation for Space Data System Standards: Orbit Data Messages, OCCSDS 502.0-B-3, April 2023.
Vallado, D., Crawford, P., Hujsak, R., & Kelso, T. S. (2006, August). Revisiting spacetrack report# 3. In AIAA/AAS Astrodynamics Specialist Conference and Exhibit (p. 6753).

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