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Signatures of Life : Development and use of novel spectroscopy techniques

Department of Physics and Astronomy

About the Project

Molecular spectroscopy is a valuable analytical tool for planetary exploration (i.e. for performing surface science studies, determining geological history, and searching for the signs of past and present life). In particular, the most recent Mars rovers developed by ESA and NASA carry infrared and Raman spectrometers, which provide information on the molecular composition of materials present on the surface. Raman spectroscopy is a rapid, non-destructive scattering technique that provides information about the chemical composition of a sample. Due to recent advances in instrument miniaturisation and robustness, Raman spectrometers are frequently highly ranked in payload proposals for future exploration missions. For example, the ESA ExoMars mission incorporates the Raman Laser Spectrometer (RLS) in the body of the rover, which will be used to identify organic compounds and search for signs of extinct or extant life in materials found on the surface or near sub-surface of Oxia Planum. The NASA Mars2020 mission also incorporates two instruments that can operate in Raman spectroscopy modes (SuperCam and SHERLOC) and the next 3 years will see a substantial amount of data returned from the first generation of Raman spectrometers.
The development of the RLS instrument and NASA’s Mars2020 Raman instruments have also led to the serious consideration of Raman spectrometers for NASA’s potential Europa Lander mission (focussing on the habitability of the moon by verifying the presence on the ocean and its characteristics, whilst determining the geological and biological processes that have and will take place on the moon). Previous Europa missions have revealed clear evidence of subsurface oceans most likely sustained by tidal heating and the dynamic radiation environment, and magnetospheric models of the Jovian system suggest a large amount of organic chemistry that has been driven by particles accelerated in Jupiter's magnetic field. This environment likely satisfies the critical requirements for life as we know it. Raman spectrometers would be ideal for identifying molecular signatures associated with these processes. However, the same radiation environment that may support hidden biological processes also pose a threat to mission payloads. High particle irradiances can affect the performance of both detectors and electronic components, significantly reducing the overall instrument performance and reliability. Consequently, it is important to fully model the physical processes involved in order to understand and account for the impact that they will have on the overall scientific capability of the payload. Data returned from the Mars2020 and ExoMars mission will be critical in verifying such models.
Furthermore, Raman spectrometers (along with complementary elemental identification techniques) have been identified as ideal analytical instruments for a range of future lunar lander/rover proposals. For those missions it will be necessary to further develop the instruments and technologies included on the Mars rovers to enable operation during a wider range of operational extremes.
This project involves reviewing data obtained with previously developed space instruments (i.e. from the Mars2020 mission, the prototype systems developed for the ExoMars 2022 mission, and the prototype systems developed for the Europa lander) in order to help develop the next generation of instrumentation packages that are suitable for future mission opportunities, including lunar lander proposals, the next generation of Mars rover instruments (including Mars Sample Return), and icy moons missions. The research activities include: assessing and prioritising the key science goals and requirements for future missions (e.g. identification of biosignatures, habitability, hydration conditions, and geological context), instrument performance modelling, environment modelling (including orbital analysis and radiation effects), and data interpretation and algorithms/systems (specifically focussing on real time, autonomous systems for analysing spectral data acquired by the instrument, and optimised operation during surface operations).

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject.
The University of Leicester English language (URL:
requirements apply where applicable.

Application advice

To apply please refer to
With your application, please include:
• CV
• Personal statement explaining your interest in the project, your experience and why we should consider you
• Degree Certificates and Transcripts of study already completed and if possible transcript to date of study currently being undertaken
• Evidence of English language proficiency if applicable
• In the reference section please enter the contact details of your two academic referees in the boxes provided or upload letters of reference if already available.
• STFC Research Interests Form 2021, to be completed online at
In the funding section please specify that you wish to be considered for Ref STFC 2021
In the proposal section please provide the name of the supervisors and project title (a proposal is not required)

Project / Funding Enquiries:
Application enquiries to

Funding Notes

This research project is one of a number of projects in the School of Physics. It is in competition for STFC funding with one or more of these projects. Usually the project which receives the best applicant will be awarded the funding.
This project is eligible for a fully funded STFC studentship which includes :
• A full UK fee waiver for 3.5 years
• An annual tax free stipend of £15,285 (2020/2021)
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)
• Conference Fees & UK Fieldwork fund


1. NASA, Europa Lander Study 2016 Report, JPL D-97667
2. Pappalardo, R. T. et al., 2013, Astrobiology, 13 740–773
3. Rull, F. et al., 2017, Astrobiology, 17
4. Wiens, Roger C., et al. "The SuperCam remote sensing instrument suite for Mars 2020." 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
5. Beegle, Luther, et al. "SHERLOC: scanning habitable environments with raman & luminescence for organics & chemicals." Aerospace Conference, 2015 IEEE. IEEE, 2015.

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