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Unveiling the diversity and architecture of extrasolar planets: combining different detection methods to better understand the characteristics of new planets

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, January 31, 2020
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

The possibility of planets orbiting other stars has been a topic of fascination for centuries. We are the first generation that has brought these planets – now known as exoplanets – from the realm of science-fiction into that of science. An important milestone was the discovery of several planets orbiting a pulsar1 (Wolszczan & Frail, 1992), followed by the first planet orbiting a star more similar to our Sun2 (Mayor & Queloz, 1995), an achievement recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. The 25 years since have been filled with an abundance of exciting discoveries and today we know over 4000 exoplanets. These planets exhibit an incredible diversity of properties. Why do so many planets have tiny orbits – often much smaller than that of Mercury? What causes planets to become rocky, gaseous, or something in between? Why do some planets have orbits that are strongly eccentric, or misaligned with the rotation of their host stars? What happens to planets when stars evolve away from the main sequence? Which planets are the most favourable and interesting targets for studies of their atmospheres? How unique is our solar system – are we alone?

Exoplanet science is a young field of research and there is great potential for many ground-breaking new discoveries!

Despite the discovery of thousands of new planets over the last years, much remains unknown about their characteristics. A powerful way of learning about exoplanets is by combining information from different detection methods, in particular from transit surveys such as the NASA Kepler and TESS missions, and from radial velocity (RV) observations from state-of-the-art instruments on telescopes around the world such as the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile. By combining these sources of data, both sizes and masses of planets can be measured and their composition can be inferred. In this way, we can classify the architecture and diversity of planetary systems. A motivated PhD student will join an international team of experts focused on conducting and analysing RV observations of newly discovered transiting exoplanets. The project holds tremendous potential for a range of exciting new discoveries. We will seek to establish which planets have thick atmospheres and which have no atmospheres, and investigate the reasons for these differences. The student will tap into a large international network of experts to do this challenging but exciting work.

In this project a motivated student will sharpen their analytical background and physical knowledge, while developing strong data science skills that will be valuable both in an academic career and outside of academia. Furthermore, there will be ample opportunity to travel to other universities and present new findings in international conferences, as well as conduct observations at telescopes around the world.

Desired Knowledge and Skills

• Undergraduate in astrophysics, planetary science or related degree.
• A background in physics and/or data science is helpful but lack thereof can be overcome with strong motivation.
• Excellent writing and presentation skills are a bonus, as is evidence of motivation, leadership and creativity.


Applications submitted by 31st January 2020 will be given full consideration. We will continue accepting applications until all places are filled. After we receive your application, we will select candidates for interviews. If you are selected, you will be invited for an interview at MSSL. You will have the opportunity to see the laboratory, students' flats and talk to current students. The studentships are for the advertised projects only. In your application, please specify which project you want to apply for.

To apply, please visit the Online Application page, select department of "Space & Climate Physics" and programme type of "Postgraduate Research". After pushing "Search Now" button, select "RRDSPSSING01: Research Degree: Space and Climate Physics" for Full-time or Part-time mode.
Our Online Applications page can be found here:

Entry requirements

An upper second-class Bachelor’s degree, or a second-class Bachelor’s degree together with a Master's degree from a UK university in a relevant subject, or an equivalent overseas qualification.

Students from the UK or those from the EU who meet the residency requirements (3 years' full-time residency in the UK) are potentially eligible for a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) studentship.

Funding Notes

These pay UK/EU tuition fees and a maintenance allowance for 3.5 years (subject to the PhD upgrade review).

EU students who do not meet eligibility requirements still qualify for the UK/EU fees rate, but not the STFC maintenance allowance.


1. Wolszczan & Frail, 1992
2. Mayor & Queloz, 1995

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