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  In the presence of uncertainty: Exploring the use of Gaussian Processes to examine the Sun's corona (Ref: NUDATA24-R/EE/MPEE/MORTON)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

  Dr Richard Morton, Dr Guangquan Li  Sunday, June 02, 2024  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

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 for full information.

Project Description

The solar corona is the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere, sitting above the photosphere and chromosphere. The corona stretches from around 2000 km above the Sun’s surface out to around 10-20 solar radii (1 solar radii approx. 695,000 km). It is composed of a tenuous and ionised plasma, with temperatures more than a million degrees. However, scientists are still at a loss as to why the corona is so much hotter than the Sun’s surface (which is a paltry 5000 Kelvin in comparison). The heating of the corona is key unanswered question (Judge 2021), and determining how it happens has implications for our understanding of many other solar-like stars. One aspect of interest is being able to predict the EUV and X-ray emission that arises from the heating. The radiation at these wavelengths can cause expansion and thermal escape of planetary atmospheres. Further, radiative fluxes on other younger, magnetically active stars can be much larger than our Sun’s current output. Hence understanding magnetic heating in the Sun’s corona is key for determining the evolution of the early solar system as well as probing the dynamics of exoplanets’ atmospheres.

Several new facilities for probing the Sun’s corona have recently come online. DKIST is the world’s largest solar telescope and will soon be delivering the highest resolution views of the infrared corona to date (Schad et al. 2023). And ESA’s Solar Orbiter is also sending back stunning images of the corona in EUV. To improve our knowledge, we need to be able to make accurate estimates of a wide variety of coronal phenomena, such as magnetohydrodynamic waves – a leading candidate for coronal heating. However, a situation that often arises is that the data possesses correlated noise. This has largely been overlooked in past investigations, but accounting for it will enable novel insights from this new and exciting data. The aim of this project will be to use a Machine Learning method called Gaussian Processes to properly consider the correlated noise (Jötler et al., 2019; Aigrain & Foreman-Mackay 2023). The method will be applied to several data measurement problems, including determination of coronal emission lines, measurement of magnetohydrodynamic waves, and pulsations in solar flares.

A successful candidate will become a member of the RiPSAW research team led by Dr Richard Morton, who are interested in understanding the heating of the corona using advanced data analysis techniques and numerical simulations. The team regularly works with collaborators from around the world, hence there will be opportunities to visit international institutes of excellence in Solar Physics. The successful candidate will learn about Gaussian Processes and develop skills in Python such that they can exploit state-of-the-art Machine Learning packages. The gained knowledge and skills will then be applied to various problems within Solar Physics, with a focus on topics related to wave observations in the corona. The project will use the exciting new data from DKIST and Solar Orbiter. The role will also enable the candidate to gain skills in presentation of scientific material, with opportunities to write scientific journal articles and deliver posters and presentations at national and international conferences.

Academic Enquiries

This project is supervised by Dr Richard Morton. For informal queries, contact . For all other enquiries relating to eligibility or application process contact Admissions (). 

You will join a strong and supportive research team. The very best way to get a taste of this is to come and visit the Research Group in person, meet your fellow PhD students, and meet the PhD supervisors. We have funding to support all UK National applicants who wish to visit the research group (with funding to fully cover reasonable travel and accommodation costs). Please contact Head of Group Professor James McLaughlin if you are interested in visiting the Group, and we can arrange travel arrangement (and cover these costs). Also feel free to contact individual PhD supervisors if this is better for you.

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. 

For further details on how to apply see  

In your application, please include the advert reference.

Deadline for applications : 2nd June 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) Mathematics (25) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

The 4-year studentship is available to Home students only (see definition above) and includes a full stipend at UKRI rates (for 2024/25 full-time study this is £19,237 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.


Gortler, J. et al. (2019) A visual exploration of Gaussian Processes -
Aigrain, S. & Foreman-Mackey, D. (2023) Gaussian Process Regression for Astronomical Time Series, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Vol. 61:329-371,
Judge, P. (2021) The Enduring mystery of the Solar Corona -
Schad, T. et al. (2023) First Infrared Coronal Spectra from DKIST/Cryo-NIRSP: Comparisons with Global MHD Models The Astrophysical Journal, 943, 59

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