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The feasibility of in situ VOC analysis on icy bodies

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  • Full or part time
    Dr S Sheridan
    Dr V Pearson
    Prof M Patel
    Dr G Morgan
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This project will conduct a feasibility study of potential instrumentation that could be deployed on future missions to icy moons.

Project Highlights:
• Developing an innovative cryogenic system for ice growth
• Growing ice simulants representative of icy moons
• Establishing utility of instrumentation for future exploration missions


To date, knowledge of the composition of the ices on bodies such as Enceladus and Europa are limited to remote sensing techniques carried out by orbiting spacecraft; no groundtruth in situ measurement have yet been made. The current level of interest in these bodies is driven, in part, by their potential habitability. Of particular interest are volatile organics, of which CO, CO2, CH4, NH3, C2H2, etc. have been detected remotely in the plumes of Enceladus (Postberg et al., 2011, Figure 1) and CO, CO2, NH3 and low molecular weight organics detected spectroscopically on the ice surface (Brown et al., 2006). A question remains as to whether the organics detected are the result of photochemistry or are sourced from upwelling from the sub-surface ocean environment. This is important in order to understand carbon cycling within the Solar System, particularly in light of recent results from Cassini that may indicate a complex organic chemistry on the Enceladus ocean floor (Postberg et al., 2018).

The interest in these icy bodies means that opportunities are likely to arise in the future for in situ analysis performed by landed spacecraft elements. Ideally, such instruments will not only take surface measurements, but will also be able to access the sub-surface, which is shielded from space weathering.

This studentship intends to simulate the icy conditions likely in the surface and subsurface, establish extraction protocols to enable those ices to be analysed, and determine the feasibility of utilising state-ofthe-art miniature mass spectrometry to characterise the composition of those ices in situ. This studentship allows the preliminary evaluation of an in situ VOC analytical system for icy bodies in preparation for future mission proposals.

Eligibility and Requirements

E3 studentships are available to UK and EU applicants. A first degree at grade 2:1 or equivalent in a relevant science subject is required. A Masters degree (MSc or integrated MSci) or equivalent experience is desirable.

How to apply

We strongly advise you to contact the lead supervisor of the project(s) that interests you before submitting an application. The application process requires you to send an email to the following email address:

[Email Address Removed]

Please attach the following items to your email:
(1) a cover letter outlining why the project is of interest and how your skills match those required,
(2) your CV and contact details of 3 academic references,
(3) a E3 application form, and
(4) a completed Home OU application form (if you are resident in the UK or European Economic Area).

Closing date for applications: 30th September 2019 at (12pm, noon)

Interviews will take place between 21st and 28th October 2019, anticipated start date is 1st February 2020.

We promote diversity in employment and welcome applications from all sections of the community, particularly from groups that are otherwise underrepresented in academic communities.

Funding Notes

Astrobiology OU has recently been awarded £6.7 million by Research England to develop their capacity. This will allow the group to expand to bring together expertise in technology, international development and governance to address the scientific and governance challenges associated with the advancement of astrobiology and related space exploration missions. The funding for these studentships comes from this grant and covers a 3 year stipend, and a £8000 stipend for research and travel. The student will also benefit from a number of career development opportunities organized for all members of the group.

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