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The substorm source of Earth’s outer radiation belt (Advert Reference: RDF20/EE/MPEE/WATTClare)

Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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Prof Clare Watt No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
Newcastle United Kingdom Applied Mathematics Astronomy Astrophysics Computational Physics Data Science Fluid Mechanics Geophysics Machine Learning Mathematical Modelling Space Science

About the Project

The Earth’s radiation belts are regions of highly energetic electrons and protons that surround the Earth. The outer radiation belt is very variable, changing in size and intensity over the course of hours and days. Electrons can be accelerated up to velocities that are a significant fraction of the speed of light, and these so-called “killer” electrons pose a direct threat to space-borne electronics. The long-term effects of flying through such a harsh radiation environment can significantly shorten spacecraft lifetime and pose hazards to the safe operation of spacecraft. 21st Century technology is increasingly reliant on space-based assets and infrastructure so there is a pressing need to learn more about the “space weather” in the outer radiation belt to mitigate its effects.

The outer radiation belt is not isolated in space, but is part of a much larger Sun-Earth system. The variability of the amount of electrons in the outer radiation belt and the extent of the belt is controlled by the solar wind, and by internal processes known as substorms. Substorms occur on the nightside of the Earth and manifest as an explosive redistribution of energy in near-Earth space, and are likely to provide a source of high-energy electrons that are eventually accelerated to relativistic energies to form the outer radiation belt.

In this project, you will analyse spacecraft observations that sample the plasma of near-Earth space to build up a statistical picture of the relationship between substorms and enhancements in the outer radiation belt. You will have access to a fleet of scientific spacecraft including the NASA Van Allen Probes, the ESA Cluster mission and the NASA THEMIS mission. You will build knowledge of plasma physics processes in space, and have the opportunity to apply/develop large-scale data analysis and machine learning techniques. As the project progresses, there will be opportunities to feed your new knowledge into next-generation radiation belt models being developed at Northumbria University and see your research become part of a larger project.

Training opportunities: In addition to weekly one-to-one meetings with supervisors, you will be encouraged to participate in weekly meetings with other researchers to identify shared problems, find solutions, develop new projects and collaborations and build your academic profile. You will have access to wide range of Masters-level modules to build up knowledge and skills in subject-specific areas. Our lively seminar series will expose you to new ideas from external and internal speakers. You will benefit from an array of national summer schools, to develop both discipline-specific and transferable skills. There are opportunities to competitively bid to attend international summer schools (e.g. IAGA summer school, NSF GEM Summer workshop, Los Alamos Space Weather Summer School) and the supervisory team have experience of successful bids.

Student profile: This project would be suitable for a student with a background in physics, mathematics or closely-related physical science. Prior knowledge of space plasma physics is not necessary. Prior experience of coding and programming is desirable but not essential. Training in all necessary skills is provided.

The principal supervisor for this project is Professor Clare Watt.

Please note eligibility requirement:

·      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. – 6.5

·      Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

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

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF20/EE/MPEE/WATTClare) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 7 January 2021

Start Date: Ideally 1 June 2021 (but there is flexibility for an earlier or a later start date)

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Funding Notes

The studentship is available to Home and International (including EU) Students including a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2020/1, this is £15,285 pa) and full tuition fees.


A Framework for Understanding and Quantifying the Loss and Acceleration of Relativistic Electrons in the Outer Radiation Belt During Geomagnetic Storms
Murphy, K., Mann, I., Watt, C., Sibeck, D., Rae, J., Ozeke, L., Kanekal, S. & Baker, D., May 2020, In : Space Weather. 18, 5, e2020SW002477.
Substorm-Ring Current Coupling: A comparison of isolated and compound substorms
Sandhu, J. K., Rae, I. J., Freeman, M. P., Gkioulidou, M., Forsyth, C., Reeves, G. D., Murphy, K. R., Walach, M.-T., 2019, In: Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics, 124, 6776-6791
A global view of storms and substorms
Sandhu, J. K., Walach, M.-T., Allison, H. J. and Watt, C. E. J., 2019, In: Astronomy and Geophysics, 60, 13-19.
The global statistical response of the outer radiation belt during geomagnetic storms
Murphy, K. R., Watt, C. E. J., Mann, I. R., Rae, I. J., Sibeck, D. G., Boyd, A. J., Forsyth, C., Turner, D. L., Claudepierre, S. G., Baker, D. N., et al. May 2018, In: Geophysical Research Letters, 45, 3783-3792.
What effect do substorms have on the content of the radiation belts?
Forsyth, C., Rae, I.J., Murphy, K. R., Freeman, M. P., Huang, C.-L., Spence, H. E., Boyd, A. J., Coxon, J. C., Jackman, C. M., Kalmoni, N. M. E., Watt, C. E. J., Jul 2016, In: Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics, 121, 6292-6306

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