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Modelling the Upper Atmosphere for Space Weather

   Department of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering

   Applications accepted all year round  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Comprehensive, global and timely specifications of the Earth’s upper atmosphere are required to ensure the effective operation, planning and management of a range of systems impacted by space weather. The threat posed by severe space weather was added to the UK National Risk Register in 2011. One aspect of this risk is the impact that changes in neutral density have on the drag of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). A further risk is the impact of the charged upper atmosphere on high frequency (HF) communications, the primary method for contacting aircraft whilst in flight. One of the greatest challenges facing our continued presence in space is the risk of satellite collisions. In the age of satellite “mega”-constellations, the number of objects in orbit is increasing at a dramatic rate and so the number of collisions will increase. Collisions are avoided by predicting the location of all known satellites, and when two objects are predicted to collide (or pass very closely) perform a manoeuvre to avoid it. However, due to inaccuracies in the current orbit modelling, many of these costly avoidance manoeuvres are actually unnecessary, and others can be missed. It is estimated that the economic loss to satellite operators from collisions and unnecessary avoidance manoeuvrers at over £200 million per year. The University of Birmingham has developed the Advanced Ensemble electron density (Ne) Assimilation System (AENeAS) a physics-based data assimilation model of the atmosphere. Data assimilation models fuses together (direct and indirect) observations of the atmosphere with a first-principles model of the upper atmosphere. The model is used operationally to provide accurate and actionable forecasts of the environment for the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre – a 24/7 space weather forecast centre. To improve the state-of-the-art in modelling of the upper atmosphere novel and complex data sources need to be added to AENeAS since direct observations of the thermosphere are sparse. However, observations of objects on orbit could be used to infer information about the neutral density in LEO. In addition, accurate orbit propagators are required to forecast satellite, and space debris, positions as well as for improving re-entry estimates.

Applications are open to students that have, or expect to obtain, a 1st class degree (or equivalent) in a wide variety of scientific disciplines including physics and mathematics. Due to the nature of the project, the applicant should be able to demonstrate a high level of mathematical and programming ability. This fully-funded PhD opportunity will be based within the Space Environment and Radio Engineering (SERENE) group at the University of Birmingham. The successful candidate will also be expected to collaborate with researchers in Europe and the USA. 

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