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Interactions between Mercury’s surface and its dynamic space environment

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Wednesday, January 29, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About This PhD Project

Project Description

Mercury is a unique body in the solar system in that its interaction with the interplanetary medium is via a magnetised body without any atmosphere or conducting ionosphere (the moon Ganymede, within the magnetosphere of Jupiter, is the closest analogue). This project directly builds on the decades-long University investment in the ESA/JAXA BepiColombo project, allowing us to capitalise on the hardware development for the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS - on which we are the PI institute), in anticipation of the arrival of the two-spacecraft mission at Mercury in 2025.

BepiColombo is a joint mission of the European and Japanese space agencies, including 2 scientific orbiters, with European leadership on investigations of the surface of Mercury from the “Bepi” spacecraft and joint Japanese-European leadership of studies regarding the environment around Mercury from the Japanese “Mio” orbiter.

Our MIXS instrument is an integral part of BepiColombo. It includes the first X-ray telescope to visit another planet. When stimulated by X-rays, chemical elements fluoresce, emitting X-rays with energies characteristic of the elemental composition. By detecting these X-rays, MIXS will determine the chemical composition of geological features on Mercury’s surface and so answer questions about how Mercury formed and how it has evolved.

When energetic electrons hit Mercury’s surface (Image 1), they also generate characteristic X-rays from the surface. Consequently, MIXS will also allow us to determine the complex interaction between Mercury and its space environment by revealing the dynamic interaction of the planet with its magnetospheric and particle environment.

Building on recent Leicester research using NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft this project will offer a broad research experience in spacecraft data analysis and laboratory experimentation, fully preparing the student for a future career in the space sciences. It will involve the exploration of MESSENGER measurements of the energetic particles surrounding Mercury. This will prepare us to use MIXS to perform the first comprehensive measurements of Mercury’s particle-induced fluorescent X-rays.

An important part of the project is to perform laboratory experiments on the production of fluorescent X-ray emission from various analogues of Mercury’s surface under bombardment from controlled X-ray and electron sources. This project will exploit a new, £100,000 Leicester laboratory facility, the MIXS ground truth facility, established through funding from the UK Space Agency and STFC.

The project will also study a complementary method for investigating Mercury’s space environment, exploring the Ultra Low Frequency (ULF) wave populations present in the magnetosphere. These wave populations have allowed us to model the plasma density surrounding Mercury (Image 2), but we have much more to learn from them.

The project will have a number of research strands including:
• The energetic particle populations surrounding Mercury: We will focus on particle and magnetic field measurements taken by MESSENGER in regions magnetically conjugate to previous observations of particle induced X-ray fluorescence, in order to understand the particle populations responsible for the X-ray emissions.

• An associated laboratory programme will include the characterisation of X-ray and particle-induced X-ray fluorescence from ground based Mercury surface analogues, using the MIXS ground truth facility. Such analysis is a vital precursor to the BepiColombo mission to ensure maximum science return from the MIXS instrument

• The ULF wave population within Mercury’s magnetosphere using MESSENGER data: The damping of these waves is determined by their interaction with the insulating planetary surface and highly conducting planetary core, and here we will focus on their use, for the first time, as a diagnostic of crustal electrical properties.

Application Instructions

When applying, please ensure we have received all of the following required documents by Wednesday 29th January 2020 :
• To apply - Please refer to the application guidance and application link at https://le.ac.uk/study/research-degrees/funded-opportunities/stfc-studentships

• 2 academic references
• STFC Research Interests Form
• CV
• Undergraduate transcripts
o If you have completed your undergraduate degree, we will also require your undergraduate degree certificate
o If you have completed a postgraduate degree, we will also require your transcripts and degree certificate

If we do not have the required documents by the closing date, your application may not be considered for the studentship.


1. “Mercury: The view after MESSENGER”, Eds. Solomon, Nittler and Anderson, Cambridge University Press, 2018, (https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316650684, ISBN 978-1-107-15445-2).
2. Lindsay et al. (2016), MESSENGER X-ray observations of magnetosphere–surface interaction on the nightside of Mercury, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pss.2016.03.005
3. James et al. (2016), A statistical survey of ultralow‐frequency wave power and polarization in the Hermean magnetosphere, https://doi.org/10.1002/2016JA023103
4. James et al. (2019), Field Line Resonance in the Hermean Magnetosphere: Structure and Implications for Plasma Distribution, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JA025920
5. Leicester BepiColombo information can be accessed at https://le.ac.uk/bepicolombo

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