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  Investigation of the potential of using magnetic reconnection as the method of acceleration within spacecraft propulsion


   Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences

   Saturday, August 31, 2024  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Supervisory Team:   Dr Charlie Ryan, Dr Alex Wittig

Project description

This PhD project will aim to investigate the potential of using magnetic reconnection within a plasma propulsion thruster for spacecraft, and exciting and novel topic within the field.

Some of the most energetic ejection of plasma observed in the universe draw their energy from magnetic fields. Solar flares, coronal mass ejections and galactic jets all acquire their energy from magnetic reconnection. Magnetic reconnection is a mechanism by which opposing magnetic field lines may break and reconnect converting their stored energy into acceleration of the plasma. Although most commonly found at astrophysical scales, magnetic reconnection has been studied on terrestrial scales in laboratory astrophysics experiments, Based on the conversion of magnetic to kinetic energy the ejected plasma is expected to be travelling at huge speeds, an order of magnitude greater velocity than existing spacecraft ion thrusters can achieve, sufficient enough to potentially increase the distances spacecraft go, and leading to the ability to much more efficiently explore the Solar system.

It is only very recently however that magnetic reconnection’s potential for use in spacecraft propulsion has been identified, and analysis begun. A few different approaches to harnessing reconnection have been developed, predominantly taking inspiration from either astrophysical sources or configurations associated with fusion research. To date, most work covering this area has been done via simulations.

This PhD will investigate using magnetic reconnection as the propellant acceleration mechanism within a spacecraft ion thruster. It will involve the simulation of magnetic reconnection using adapted codes available from astrophysics based simulations, the design of ion thrusters that can potential use magnetic reconnection, and the testing of designed ion thrusters within the David Fearn Lab at the University of Southampton (link). The work will be completed within the Space Propulsion Group at the University of Southampton, consisting of seven PhD students and several Research Assistants working within the area of space propulsion. The work will build upon initial work demonstrating the feasibility of the approach, presented at the AIAA Scitech conference 2023 (link). It is an exciting opportunity to investigate a very novel propulsion system for spacecraft that could enable future far field exploration of the Solar system.

If you are interested in the PhD project, please feel free to contact Dr Charlie Ryan to discuss further ().

Entry Requirements

A very good undergraduate degree (at least a UK 2:1 honours degree, or its international equivalent).

Closing date: applications should be received no later than 31 August 2024 for standard admissions, but later applications may be considered depending on the funds remaining in place.

Funding: For UK students, Tuition Fees and a stipend of £18,622 tax-free per annum for up to 3.5 years.

How To Apply

Apply online: Search for a Postgraduate Programme of Study (soton.ac.uk). Select programme type (Research), 2024/25, Faculty of Physical Sciences and Engineering, next page select “PhD Engineering & Environment (Full time)”. In Section 2 of the application form you should insert the name of the supervisor Charlie Ryan

Applications should include:

Research Proposal

Curriculum Vitae

Two reference letters

Degree Transcripts/Certificates to date

For further information please contact:


Engineering (12) Physics (29)

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