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PhD in Geographical and Earth Sciences - Masters of disguise: can achondrite parent bodies hide beneath a chondritic cover?

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  • Full or part time
    Dr t Keller
    Dr Luke Daly
    Dr J Einsle
    Prof Martin Lee
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

Project Description

Chondrite meteorites are the most primitive known building blocks of terrestrial planets as they show elemental abundances as still found in our Sun [1]. Other groups of meteorites known as achondrites and iron meteorites show various degrees of differentiation resembling the Earth’s basaltic crust and iron core, respectively. Traditionally, these categories of meteorites have been interpreted to derive from more primitive (chondrites) and more differentiated (achondrites, and irons) parent bodies, respectively. However, an alternative interpretation has it that even differentiated parent bodies can retain an undifferentiated chondritic crust [2]. This theory is consistent with observation of asteroid 21 Lutetia that has a chondritic surface composition but appears to be internally differentiated [3]. That scenario could arise in small planetesimals that experience internal heating from short-lived radionuclide decay. Partial melting and internal magmatism would facilitate differentiation of the interior while an outer crust remains intact and unprocessed. However, that regime will likely be restricted to a certain size and formation age of parent bodies. In earlier or larger planetesimals, more intense heating and internal dynamics might lead to tectonic disruption and/or volcanic resurfacing of the chondritic lid. A new generation of multi-phase reaction-transport models for magma transport through deforming ductile-brittle rock [4–6] will allow us to put the hypothetical stability of a chondritic crust on an achondrite parent body to the test!

This project will focus on developing a suite of numerical models to simulate internal melting, magma flow, and crust deformation in small (~100 km) internally heated, self-gravitating model planetesimals. A recent pilot study showed that in 1-D models, a chondritic lid remains present even in planetesimals that experience intense internal heating leading to an internal magma ocean [6]. The successful candidate will support extending the custom-built simulation code to 2-D and implement a self-gravitating flow and deformation model. Another new model component will integrate trace elemental and isotopic compositional evolution to predict chemical signatures evolving in different domains of a layered chondritic/achondritic/iron planetesimal. The predicted chemical characteristics, alongside findings regarding the mechanical evolution of planetesimal crust and interiors will be used to compare to micro-analytical data on meteorite and asteroid sample return materials, along with remote sensing observations on asteroids like 21 Lutetia.
The student will work within a dynamic team of planetary scientists at the University of Glasgow where they will gain a suite of skills focused on numerical modelling of magmatic differentiation, but also including, geochemistry, petrology, big data analysis, planetary science, and science communication. The mentoring team includes leading experts in multi-phase reactive transport modelling, micro- and nano-analysis of meteorite and asteroid samples, and machine learning approaches to interpreting geochemical and microtextural evidence. The student will gain broad training in planetary sciences as well as science communication and become embedded in a vibrant planetary science research community in the UK and internationally, including the opportunity to travel widely to pursue research collaborations and present results at conferences.

This project is one of 5 advertised projects that are eligible to receive 3.5 years of funding available through an award from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to the University of Glasgow (note: only a single scholarship is available). Please apply by sending the following documents to Prof Deborah Dixon, [Email Address Removed]

Degree transcripts.
One reference (sent directly by the referee to [Email Address Removed]).
A two page CV.
A statement of interest that indicates how your skill sets and research experience fit with the project, and how you plan on taking the project forward as an independent researcher (maximum of 1000 words excluding references).

The application deadline is April 3rd, 2020 (5pm), and a shortlisting for interview will take place by April 10th. The funded PhD will start in October 2020.

Funding Notes

Project funded by the Science and Technology Funding Council, which has specific eligibility requirements. See:


[1] Lodders K., (2003), ApJ, 591(2), p. 1220.
[2] Elkins-Tanton L., et al., (2011), EPSL, 305, p. 1-10.
[3] Pätzold M., et al., (2011), Science, 334(6055), p. 491-492.
[4] Keller T., et al., (2013), GJI, 195(3), p. 1406-1442.
[5] Keller T. & Suckale J., (2019), 219(1), p. 185-222.
[6] Lichtenberg T., et al., (2019), EPSL, 50, p.154-165.

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