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Pick-up of electrons from comets, dust and interstellar neutrals in the solar wind. (Advert ref: STFC23/EE/MPEE/WICKS)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Dr Robert Wicks  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The solar wind is a supersonic flow of plasma from the Sun that fills interplanetary space. Over half of the particles in the plasma are negatively charged electrons that have superthermal heavy tails. Neutral particles in interplanetary space can become ionised by photoionisation, collisions with superthermal electrons, or charge-exchange with a solar wind ion. Newly-formed ions are well studied, with the result that we understand that ions are ‘picked-up’ by the solar wind electric field and accelerated away from the Sun, generating ion cyclotron waves and forming a distinct ‘pick-up ion’ population measured with increasing relative density at further distances from the Sun. Pick-up ions become energetically important in the outer heliosphere to the extent that they modify the pressure of the solar wind. Two of the three ionisation processes (photoionisation and electron impact) liberate an electron as well as an ion; however, there are no studies of newly unbound electrons in the solar wind.

In this PhD, you will study newly liberated electrons found in the inner heliosphere with the objective of understanding their importance in the transport of energy in the solar wind. There are three sources that can be identified and separated: interstellar neutral Helium, dust particles, and comets. Interstellar Helium is focused into a cone by the gravity of the Sun as it travels through the Local Interstellar Cloud and is sampled by the Parker Solar Probe (PSP) and Solar Orbiter (SolO) missions. PSP has discovered that the density of dust particles is very high in localised patches close to the Sun. Another source of neutral material in the solar wind is comets; the most recently visited is comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which was studied by the Rosetta spacecraft. You will use PSP, SolO and Rosetta to observe newly ionised electron populations in the solar wind. You will use these studies to answer questions such as: can pick-up electrons be identified in the measured electron distributions? Are pick-up electrons energetically important to the solar wind? Do picked-up electrons make plasma waves? Are the ionisation rates of neutrals affected by the pick-up electron process?

You will attend SolO instrument team meetings with Dr Wicks, gaining direct access to the mission instrument teams and experience of how ESA science missions are operated. Dr Götz is an instrument team member from Rosetta and both she and Dr Wicks are experts in plasma processes. We welcome applicants with a background in physics, applied mathematics, or other related disciplines. Prior experience in scientific computing or plasma physics is a benefit, but we will provide you with the requisite training to gain all the skills you need to do your project. Our research group provides a welcoming and supportive research environment with a wide range of stimulating research. We organise seminars, journal clubs and other group activities to support you to grow as an independent researcher. We will enable you to travel to international schools, conferences and workshops to learn, present your findings, expand your research network and be inspired by new perspectives.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if they are already a PhD holder or if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • 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. Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence, and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

  • Immigration Health Surcharge
  • If you need to apply for a Student Visa to enter the UK, please refer to the information on It is important that you read this information very carefully as it is your responsibility to ensure that you hold the correct funds required for your visa application otherwise your visa may be refused.
  • Check what COVID-19 tests you need to take and the quarantine rules for travel to England
  • Costs associated with English Language requirements which may be required for students not having completed a first degree in English, will not be borne by the university. Please see individual adverts for further details of the English Language requirements for the university you are applying to.

You will join a strong and supportive research team. To help better understand the aims of the CDT and to meet the PhD supervisors, we are hosting a day-long event on campus on Monday 9th January 2023.

At that event, there will be an opportunity to discuss your research ideas, meet potential PhD supervisors, as well as hear from speakers from a variety of backgrounds (academia, industry, government, charity) discussing both STFC and data science as well as their personal paths and backgrounds. Click here for details.

How to Apply

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Please note:

You must include the relevant advert reference/studentship code (e.g. STFC23/…) in your application.

We offer all applicants full guidance on the application process and on details of the DTP. For informal enquiries, email Professor James McLaughlin (Northumbria: [Email Address Removed]). Please contact the Principal Supervisor of the project(s) [Email Address Removed] for project-specific enquiries.

Deadline for applications: 31st January 2023

Start Date: 1st October 2023

Funding Notes

The studentship supports a full stipend, paid for 3.5 years at UKRI rates (for 2022/23 full-time study this is £17,668 per year), full tuition fees and a Research Training and Support Grant (for conferences, travel, etc).


Broiles, T.W., Livadiotis, G., Burch, J.L., Chae, K., Clark, G., Cravens, T.E., Davidson, R., Eriksson, A., Frahm, R.A., Fuselier, S.A. and Goldstein, J., 2016. Characterizing cometary electrons with kappa distributions. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 121(8), pp.7407-7422.
Abraham, J.B., Owen, C.J., Verscharen, D., Bakrania, M., Stansby, D., Wicks, R.T., Nicolaou, G., Whittlesey, P.L., Rueda, J.A.A., Jeong, S.Y. and Berčič, L., 2022. Radial evolution of thermal and suprathermal electron populations in the slow solar wind from 0.13 to 0.5 au: Parker Solar Probe Observations. The Astrophysical Journal, 931(2), p.118.
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