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The planetary graveyard – searching for the remnants of exoplanet systems around dead stars

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  • Full or part time
    Dr M Burleigh
    Dr S Casewell
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

There is growing evidence that planetary systems are ubiquitous throughout the galaxy. Ground and spaced based surveys have found thousands of planets around stars. They range from Jupiter sized planets so close to the parent star that their atmosphere is being evaporated, to a planetary system made up of seven earth-sized planets around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Of all the types of isolated stars in the galaxy there is one significant discrepancy where no planets have been detected, White Dwarfs. 97% of stars, including our own Sun, will end their life as the remnant, cooling, cores of stars, known as White Dwarfs. The fate of the planetary systems around these stars is unknown. Planets closest to the parent star are expected to be destroyed as they are engulfed when a main sequence star expands to a red giant, but the fate of those further out are unknown. There is growing evidence that planetary systems do survive to some extent. Contamination of the atmosphere, as well as circumstellar dust and metal rich gas discs have all been observed around White Dwarfs that can only be explained due to the disruption of a rocky body that strayed too close to the star. There is even one system where such a process is being actively monitored, WD1145+017. This system was identified by data from the Kepler Space Telescope, which sees multiple and varying dust clouds transiting across the White Dwarf as the body disintegrates and releases clouds of debris. Not only do such processes provide evidence that planetary systems do survive but they also provide information on the elementary make up of rocky type bodies outside of our own solar system. WD1145+017 is unlikely to be unique and more examples will expand our knowledge of the evolutionary end stage of planetary systems.

Our on-going work has identified many other White Dwarfs with variability that cannot easily be explained but could be due to dusty material accreting onto the White Dwarf. Alternatively such variability could also be due to reflection from or heating of a very short period non-stellar companion, such as a Brown Dwarf or perhaps even a Jupiter sized planet. Our group has recently identified the shortest period known such system: a Brown Dwarf (which is about the same size as Jupiter) orbiting an Earth sized object (the White Dwarf) every ≈70 minutes!

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 requirements apply where applicable.

How to apply

The online application and supporting documents are due by Monday 21st January 2019.

Any applications submitted after the deadline will not be accepted for the studentship scheme.

References should arrive no later than Monday 28th January 2019.

Applicants are advised to apply well in advance of the deadline, so that we can let you know if anything is missing from your application.

Required Materials:

1. Online application form
2. Two academic references
3. Transcripts
4. Degree certificate/s (if awarded)
5. Curriculum Vitae
6. CSE Studentship Form
7. English language qualification

Applications which are not complete by the deadline will not be considered for the studentship scheme. It is the responsibility of the applicant to ensure the application form and documents are received by the relevant deadlines.

All applications must be submitted online, along with the supporting documents as per the instructions on the website.

Please ensure that all email addresses, for yourself and your referees, are correct on the application form.

Project / Funding Enquiries

Application enquiries to [Email Address Removed]
Closing date for applications – 21st January 2019

Funding Notes

This research project is one of a number of projects in the College of Science and Engineering. It is in competition for funding with one or more of these projects. Usually the project that receives the best applicant will be awarded the funding.

Home/EU Applicants:

This project is eligible for a fully funded College of Science and Engineering studentship that includes:

• A full UK/EU fee waiver for 3.5 years
• An annual tax free stipend of £14,777 (2018/19)
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)

International Applicants:

This project is eligible for a College of Science and Engineering studentship that includes:

• A full international fee waiver for 3.5 years
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)

International candidates must be able to fund their living costs for the duration of the studentship.


1. "A disintegrating minor planet transiting a white dwarf. Vanderburg et al., 2015, Nature 7574, 546 (https://arxiv.org/abs/1510.06387)
2. "High-speed photometry of the disintegrating planetesimals at WD1145+017: evidence for rapid dynamical evolution. " Gaensicke et al 2016, ApJL, 818L,7G (https://arxiv.org/abs/1512.09150)
3. "Two white dwarfs in ultrashort binaries with detached, eclipsing, likely substellar companions detected by K2." Parsons et al., 2017, MNRAS, 471,976,(https://arxiv.org/abs/1705.05856)
4. "Kepler and the seven dwarfs: detection of low-level day-time-scale periodic photometric variations in White Dwarfs." Maoz et al., 2015, 447,1749 (https://arxiv.org/abs/1409.5129)

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