Projects for 2022 Entry

Each year we offer a number of opportunities to study for a PhD under the supervision of academic staff in our group. Research topics include space and planetary physics, atmospheric physics and climate science, and laboratory astrophysics.

Space physics and laboratory astrophysics virtual open day Wednesday 12th January 2022 from 13:00 to 15:00.

For the below space physics and laboratory astrophysics opportunities we will be holding a virtual open day on Wednesday 12th January 2022 from 13:00 to 15:00. Potential supervisors will talk about their projects, and there will be opportunities to talk to individual supervisors in “breakout” rooms. To register and receive joining instructions please email space.sec@imperial.ac.uk

If you have any questions regarding the PhD program in SPAT, please contact the SPAT Admissions Coordinator using the email address spat.pg@imperial.ac.uk

Life as a PhD student in the Space and Atmospheric Physics group

In this short video, atmospheric physics PhD student Eric Saboya gives an overview of what life is like studying in the Space and Atmospheric Physics group.

Projects on offer: Please click on the tabs below to find out about the opportunities that are available in each of our different research areas.

Projects for 2016 Entry

Atmospheric Physics

The following atmospheric physics projects are currently available for entry in October 2022:

  1. A global tropical cyclone model
  2.  How does moisture affect the circulation of the atmosphere?
  3. Measuring the timescales for precipitation - how quickly can you make a cloud rain?
  4. Carbon cycling in next-generation terrestrial ecosystem models

Projects 1, 2, and 3 are offered via the NERC Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership. Project 4 is offered through support from the Schmidt Foundation.

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A global tropical cyclone model. Supervisor: Prof. Ralf Toumi (r.toumi@imperial.ac.uk)

Tropical cyclones are one of the most dangerous natural hazards now and more so in the future(1). Much about their fascinating genesis and evolution remains insufficiently understood (2). It is proving challenging to model this phenomenon because of the wide range of scales in time and space as well as the vast range of processes involved. Everything we know about the weather affects a tropical cyclone. In this project you will build a new global model of tropical cyclones. You will use an existing model (3) to start with and improve it with better physics. We have recently found new solutions that describe some of the key processes better. Once you have created a new global TC model you will simulate the impact of climate change and the important Pacific El Nino oscillation. You will join the largest research group in Europe working on tropical cyclones.

1. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/jetstream/tropics/tc.html

2. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.earth.31.100901.141259

3. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41597-020-0381-2

How does moisture affect the circulation of the atmosphere? Supervisors: Dr Paulo Ceppi (p.ceppi@imperial.ac.uk); Prof. Tim Woollings, Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, University of Oxford

Background: Future regional climate change will depend to a significant extent on changes in the atmospheric circulation, and particularly the "jet streams", which determine the occurrence of many extreme events such as windstorms, heavy rainfall, and droughts. However, the variability and future response of the jet streams remains poorly understood, and climate models strongly disagree in terms of their projections. The jet streams are fuelled by differences in heating between the low and high latitudes. Such differential heating results not only from differences in insolation, but also from localised heating driven by latent heat release, associated with condensation and cloud formation. Latent heating is large near the jet streams, associated with rising air in mid-latitude storms, but it remains poorly understood how this heating feeds back onto the jets. A starting hypothesis for this project is that latent heating acts to enhance jet stream variability.

Aims and methodology: The aim of the project is to understand the impact of latent heating on jet stream variability. The project will consider both the natural (unforced) variability of the circulation, and its future changes in response to greenhouse gas forcing. Specific questions to be addressed in the project will include:

  • Can latent heating enhance the persistence of jet stream anomalies?
  • How do changes in latent heating contribute to future shifts in the position of the jet streams?
  • How well do climate models represent the interaction between moisture and atmospheric circulation?
  • How does this affect future climate change projections?

To address these questions, the student will perform experiments with a hierarchy of climate models, making it possible to compare the characteristics of jet stream variability with and without the effects of moist processes. These experiments will be interpreted using physical theory based on fluid dynamics. Climate model results will be compared with observational estimates of the moisture effects, with the aim of narrowing the range of model uncertainty in present-day variability and future projections. Informal email enquiries about the project are welcome (p.ceppi@imperial.ac.uk).

Measuring the timescales for precipitation - how quickly can you make a cloud rain? Supervisors: Dr Edward Gryspeerdt , Physics (e.gryspeerdt@imperial.ac.uk), Adrian Hill (Met Office)

Clouds are a central component of the Earth system, modulating the Earth's energy budget and playing a central role in the water cycle. However, their response to human activity and to rising temperatures remains a leading uncertainty, both in the forcing and response of the climate system. Due to their multi-scale behaviour, cloud processes must be parametrised, but formulating these parametrisations is difficult and relies on accurate observations. This project uses satellite data and high resolution model simulations to measure key cloud processes, particularly those around the formation of precipitation.

Precipitation is key for understanding the impact of aerosol on low, liquid clouds. As almost all cloud droplets form on an aerosol particle, a cloud in a high aerosol environment has more, smaller droplets. Smaller droplets are less likely to form precipitation, which can increase the amount of water held by clouds. The size of this effect is highly uncertain. Climate models represent it through a modification of the 'autoconversion' process, but this has up to now been difficult to measure.

This project explores a new way to measure process rates, using isolated aerosol perturbations (ships) to study cloud changes over time, providing a window into these process rates (Gryspeerdt et al., 2021). Using these observations, the project will focus on measuring the timescales for these processes for the first time and then using these observations to constrain climate models, together with modelling partners at the UK Met Office.

Specific questions addressed in this project will include:

  • How do clouds develop downwind of aerosol sources? What are the timescales for these changes, particularly for precipitation?
  • What modifications to precipitation processes are necessary to reproduce this development in a high-resolution model?
  • What impact do these changes have on the simulated global climate and its response to human activity?

The project will involve the use of state-of-the-art satellite observations, cloud-resolving, regional and global climate models to answer these questions. These results will be compared with results from other modelling centres to develop strong observation-based constraints of the anthropogenic aerosol impact on climate.

Carbon cycling in next-generation terrestrial ecosystem models. Supervisor: Dr Heather Graven (h.graven@imperial.ac.uk)

Terrestrial ecosystems are presently removing about 25% of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, but the exact mechanisms and the locations of carbon uptake are still under debate. Models of carbon exchanges in terrestrial ecosystems have evolved over the last several decades to become more complex but also less constrained, as rapidly expanding datasets and new theories have not been systematically used in improving the models.

Lemontree is a new project supported by the Schmidt Foundation to re-engineer terrestrial ecosystem models by building on strong theoretical foundations and incorporating diverse datasets. The next-generation models being created should better represent carbon fluxes in the past and in the future.

The specific aim of this PhD project is to simulate and evaluate carbon exchanges in comparison to atmospheric CO2 and isotopic data. Isotopes of carbon can provide insights to ecosystem processes and residence times, but isotopes are only rarely stimulated by models. For example, radiocarbon produced by nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s can be used to study the rate at which carbon is taken up into terrestrial biomass and how quickly it is released back to the atmosphere as CO2.

You will work collaboratively with the larger Lemontree team to evaluate and improve the new models being developed using comparisons to atmospheric CO2 and isotopic data. You will help to develop and write model code for the isotopic simulations and for ecosystem processes. You will analyse model output in comparison to various observations. You will interpret your results to make conclusions about CO2 uptake in terrestrial ecosystems and how it is likely to evolve in future scenarios.

Candidates should have a masters with a 2:1 or 1st in maths, physics, environmental science, computing, or other relevant subject. Computing experience, preferably with python, is required.

Available to start from April 2022

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/217793/new-lemontree-project-aims-improve-earth/

Space Physics

The following space physics projects are currently available for entry in October 2022:

  1. Using AI and Machine Learning to reveal the physics of magnetic reconnection, a universal plasma process
  2. How does the Sun create the solar wind?
  3. The impact of turbulence on solar wind-magnetosphere interactions

Projects 1 and 2 are expected to be funded by STFC studentships, and project 3 is offered in conjunction with the Royal Society. For specific eligibility questions, please contact the supervisor or the SPAT admissions coordinator 

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Using AI and Machine Learning to reveal the physics of magnetic reconnection, a universal plasma process. Supervisor: Dr Jonathan Eastwood (jonathan.eastwood@imperial.ac.uk)

The goal of this PhD project is to use novel artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches to study magnetic reconnection in space. You will develop new techniques to analyse data from the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, as well as Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe, to understand how reconnection works in different space environments.

Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental plasma process that plays a key role in a number of astrophysical systems. For example, it controls the onset and evolution of solar flares, and it controls the manner in which plasma emitted by the Sun (the solar wind) interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field in space (the magnetosphere). It also lies at the heart of geomagnetic storms in the Earth’s magnetosphere, and a better understanding of basic science of reconnection is crucial to improving our ability to withstand severe space weather. 

Measurements made in situ by satellites, both in the solar wind and in near-Earth space, are one of the best ways to understand how this plasma process works. However, reconnection events can be difficult to find, particularly in the solar wind where they are observed effectively randomly. And one of the key features of reconnection – the formation of complex non-Maxwellian distribution functions – requires careful detailed study to understand their features and energetics. To date, inspection by hand is still the most common approach, but this is evidently limited.

To address this problem, we have pioneered the use of Machine Learning to rapidly reduce the time it takes to find candidate reconnection events in the solar wind, gaining new insights into the nature of plasma heating by reconnection [Tilquin et al., Astrophys. J., 2020 https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ab8812]. The goal of this PhD project is to build on this work by developing and deploying new AI/ML techniques to more effectively find reconnection events and analyse the energetics of reconnection. The application of AI/ML to space plasma physics is a fast-moving topic and in performing this research you will gain key skills at the cutting edge of the field.

This project is highly centred on data analysis, programming, and data visualisation. It will require knowledge of Python, as well as the ability and desire to learn and use other similar languages such as Matlab and IDL. You will use new data from Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS), Solar Orbiter, and Parker Solar Probe, as well as other datasets such as the Wind and ACE spacecraft.

How does the Sun create the solar wind? Supervisor: Prof. Tim Horbury (t.horbury@imperial.ac.uk)

The Sun enables almost all life on Earth, but as a dynamic plasma object, it can also have damaging effects, called “space weather,” through variations in the solar wind and energetic particles that arrive at our planet.

There is much that we don’t understand about how small scale dynamics on the Sun drive the solar wind, and how the Sun’s large scale magnetic field maps into interplanetary space.

We have entered a new era in the exploration of the Sun and its effects on interplanetary space with the launch of two spacecraft: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe which is travelling far closer to the Sun than ever before, and ESA’s Solar Orbiter, which enters its science phase in 2021 and will soon reach inside Mercury’s orbit, taking in situ and telescopic observations, helping us make the link between the Sun and space. These missions will help us address how the Sun affects Earth, as well as fundamental plasma physics processes such as turbulence, shocks and magnetic reconnection. We have important science roles in both missions: we built the magnetic field instrument on Solar Orbiter here in the Physics Department and we operate it, and process the data, within the Group.

In this project, you will analyse data from these two missions, along with those from other spacecraft near the Earth and elsewhere in the inner solar system, to study the formation and evolution of the solar wind and how regions on the Sun are connected to interplanetary space via the heliospheric magnetic field. This will involve combining local measurements at the spacecraft with remote, telescopic observations of the Sun.

Combined with some numerical modelling and theory, this project will make a significant contribution to our understanding of the processes by which the solar wind is formed and the Sun’s activity affects near-Earth space.

This is an exciting opportunity to be part of the discovery phase of two of the most exciting space missions for many years. You will work alongside other PhD students, postdocs and academic staff in our solar wind team here at Imperial and collaborate extensively with the worldwide communities of both missions.

You will need some programming skills; a knowledge of plasma physics would be an advantage. Please email me (t.horbury@imperial.ac.uk) if you have any questions.

 The impact of turbulence on solar wind-magnetosphere interactions. Supervisor: Dr Julia E. Stawarz (j.stawarz@imperial.ac.uk)

The plasma interaction between the flow of charge particles emanating from the Sun – known as the solar wind – and the Earth’s magnetic field can generate spectacular aurora and have tangible effects on human infrastructure such as satellites and power grids (referred to as space weather). This interaction is mediated by processes, such as magnetic reconnection and the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability, which occur at the boundary between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field.

Much of space weather research focuses on examining how intense large-scale plasma transients produced by the Sun evolve and interact with the magnetosphere. However, solar wind and magnetospheric plasma also contains a background of complex, seemingly chaotic, fluctuations, known as turbulence. These fluctuations lead to variability in the orientations of the magnetic field, as well as the plasma density, velocity, and temperature, which can impact the detailed interaction between the solar wind and magnetosphere. This project will explore how these turbulent fluctuations impact the interaction between the solar wind and magnetosphere.

Members of the Space and Atmospheric Physics group at Imperial College London have world leading expertise in developing instruments for and analysing data from spacecraft in the solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere, as well as running high performance numerical simulations of the global interaction between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere. This project will involve both these areas of research by using a combination of observations from spacecraft in the solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere to characterise the turbulent fluctuations in conjunction with new high performance numerical simulations to assess the potential impact of these fluctuations on the magnetosphere interaction. The work will push forward the boundaries of our understanding of plasma turbulence and provide new insight into how these complex fluctuations impact the interaction between the Sun and Earth.

Through this project you will:

  • Develop an understanding of interaction between fundamental plasma processes, including turbulence, magnetic reconnection, and the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability.
  • Learn how to analyze complex space plasma measurements from a variety of different instruments and spacecraft
  • Run large-scale numerical simulations and use them synergistically with spacecraft observations to understand the fundamental physics of space plasmas

Julia Stawarz is a Royal Society University Research Fellow, a member of the science team for the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, and works closely with Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter. Her research focuses on the fundamental physics of turbulence, magnetic reconnection and other small scale plasma phenomena, as well as their impact on Earth’s magnetosphere and the solar wind.

Laboratory Spectroscopy

The following laboratory astrophysics projects are currently available for entry in October 2022. Please contact the prospective supervisor or the SPAT Admissions Coordinator for questions about funding eligibility.

Spectroscopy of astrophysically important elements and applications to astrophysics. Supervisor: Prof. J. Pickering

Research areas: atomic physics, spectroscopy, astrophysics and atmospheric physics

Background: The spectra of planetary atmospheres and stars are usually extremely complex: all the elements of the periodic table may contribute, as molecules or atoms in more than one stage of ionisation, blends of several lines are the rule rather than the exception. New high resolution spectrographs on ground- and space based telescopes give exciting spectra of stars and planetary atmospheres, but the laboratory atomic data (atomic energy levels, wavelengths etc) that are vital for the interpretation of the astrophysical spectra, are often too inaccurate and incomplete. Vast improvements are needed in many cases in knowledge of atomic spectra in the laboratory.

The Space & Atmospheric Physics group’s Spectroscopy Laboratory has a Fourier Transform spectrometer which is unique - holding the short wavelength record for an instrument of its kind, and with its very high resolution and broad spectral range is ideal for studies of astrophysically important atoms and ions in the visible to ultra violet spectral range. Once an atomic spectrum has been recorded in the laboratory, an analysis of the spectrum is carried out to yield new atomic parameters over a broad spectral range (infra red through to ultraviolet) at unprecedented accuracy. We collaborate internationally on applications of the new atomic data. Examples include our work on the Gaia ESO survey of 100,000s Galactic stars to understand Galactic evolution.

Research Objectives: An STFC funded Ph.D. project is available to investigate astrophysically important atomic spectra using high resolution spectroscopy. Spectra to be studied will be carefully selected to be most relevant and urgently needed for astrophysics applications. The initial stage of the project is experimental in nature with spectra being studied in the UV and visible spectral region at Imperial College, and in the infra-red possibly at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (USA) or in Lund University (Sweden), with whom we regularly collaborate. The student would then undertake a full analysis of the spectra. We anticipate collaboration with theoretical atomic physics groups during this analysis stage. The new atomic data will then be applied in particular astrophysical spectral analyses through collaboration with astronomers. Examples of our recent research include working with teams investigating topics as diverse as Galactic evolution, time variation of the Fundamental constants, and understanding neutron star mergers.

You will gain: experimental expertise in a world-class laboratory, using unique instruments; experience undertaking experiments in laboratories abroad; learn about atomic physics; skills in theoretical analysis of spectra learning computational and analytical skills; experience working on applications of the new atomic data to analyses of particular astrophysical spectra.

The Student: The strongest candidates will have a first class degree in physics or astrophysics. This PhD suits a student who enjoys a combination of computational, analytical and experimental work.

Applications: information on how to apply can be found at -https://www.imperial.ac.uk/physics/students/admissions/postgraduate-admissions/postgraduate-research/Please inform Prof Juliet Pickering j.pickering@imperial.ac.uk when you have submitted your online form. Eligibility information for Research Council studentship funding and other funding routes can be found at: http://www.imperial.ac.uk/study/pg/fees-and-funding/

Applications will be considered as they arrive, early application is recommended.

How to apply?

If you have any questions regarding the PhD program in SPAT, please contact the SPAT Admissions Coordinator using the email address spat.pg@imperial.ac.uk.

Follow this link to be redirected to PhD application forms

Once you have submitted your application online, please save the full application in pdf format and send a copy to the SPAT Admissions Coordinator and the SPAT Group Administration at spat.pg@imperial.ac.uk and space.sec@imperial.ac.uk

President's PhD Scholarship

The President's PhD Scholarship offers full tuition fees and a generous stipend for a PhD place at Imperial College London. Up to 50 students across the College are funded each year, with no restriction on nationality. However, it should be emphasised that this is an extremely competitive award, which is reserved for candidates of exceptional academic achievement, as well as demonstrated commitment to research. The Space and Atmospheric Physics group is proud to have hosted several President's PhD Scholars in recent years.

Successful candidates are typically one of the top students in their graduating cohort, have experience of research, and often have authored or co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles as an undergraduate. 

The first step in the process is to make contact with a prospective supervisor. We are very happy to support competitive applications - if you are interested in working with a particular academic, please contact them directly, details are here. If one of the projects listed on this page is of particular interest, please do let us know.

The group is limted in the number of candidates that it can support. We therefore encourage you to make early contact with prospective supervisors. 

If you have any questions regarding the PhD program in SPAT, please contact the SPAT Admissions Coordinator using the email address spat.pg@imperial.ac.uk.