Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Midlands Alliances

Spurred by an "over-coffee" conversation about links between Midlands Universities, I discovered that a research and innovation partnership called "Midlands Innovation" brings together eight Midlands universities:

Their mission statement is to "drive cutting-edge research, innovation and skills development that will grow the high-tech, high skilled economy of the Midlands" by building "global hubs of research and innovation excellence", "exploiting the unique strengths and building on the rich history of collaboration of eight leading Universities across the Midlands: Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick." 

They point out that the "Midlands is at the heart of the UK, with a population of more than 11 million, creating £222 billion Gross Value Added – more than 14% of the total for the UK. It is also a high-export economy, with exports worth more than any other region in the UK – £49 billion annually, 17% of the UK total.  The region is at the heart of UK manufacturing and advanced engineering, accounting for 20% of UK manufacturing output through world leading business and industry like Alstom, Bombardier, Jaguar Land Rover, JCB, National Grid, Rolls-Royce, Tarmac and Toyota UK."  Midlands Innovation is tapping into "the Midlands Engine for Growth, the Government's ais to raise the long-term growth rate of the region, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and add £34 billion to its economy by 2030."

A component of this is the Midlands Physics Alliance:  "a coordinated research group and joint Graduate School with the critical mass to compete with the top US and EU Universities.  The Alliance was established in 2007, with £5 million from the Engineering and Physics Sciences Research Council to invest in new, pioneering groups on cold atom physics. At its core, the Alliance consists of the Universities of Birmingham, Nottingham and Warwick. The Universities of Leicester and Loughborough are also represented on the Graduate School Steering Committee."

I hadn't been aware of any of these Midlands groupings, but it makes a huge amount of sense in an era of dwindling resources and diminished UK influence in the global arena.  The Midlands has a really strong technology base and the immense advantage of lower cost-of-living than the South of England - I think it's time that people heard more about these alliances!

Undergraduate Physics Research Internships

One of my roles at the University of Leicester is to manage the SURE Programme (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience), which provides opportunities for paid summer jobs working with our researchers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.  Typically, we're able to offer 5-6 positions each year to 3rd-year undergraduates from the UK.  However, I receive something like 100 applications, meaning that I have to turn some 95% of applicants away.  I've never found a decent list of internship opportunities (maybe to whittle down to the most persistent undergraduates!).  But I'll do my best to keep a list here - no promises to keep it up to date!


Overseas and Open to UK Undergraduates:
  • Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI): Space Astronomy Summer Program [I benefited from this as an undergraduate in 2003, working alongside Dr. Frank Summers on an outreach project.]

Jupiter Update: January 2018

New year, and new views of Jupiter are rolling in.

John Rogers of the British Astronomical Society is always a wonderful source of insight as Jupiter changes its stripes (see his accounts of changes through the first ten Juno perijoves through to December 2017:, and this apparition has been no different, as he continues to comment on the images from amateur observers.  At the same time, Marco Vedovato continues to update his database of Earth-based maps (, with maps from Nov 2017 to today.

So far this year, he's noted "how rapidly the [North Equatorial Belt] is evolving, at least in this sector; the great waves have developed into a series of barges, and the northern half is rapidly fading.  The dark brown NEB has receded so far southwards in this image that I begin to wonder whether it will become as narrow as in 2011-12, leading to another spectacular NEB Revival in 2019." The pattern of cyclones (dark) and anticyclones (white) on the northern edge of the NEB look absolutely spectacular - they're one of the end states of the NEB expansion and contraction phase that we saw throughout 2017.

The southern edge of the NTB (North Temperate Belt) continues to be a vivid red - maybe a photochemically-produced red haze as a result of the 2016 plume activity.

In the southern hemisphere, the rifting to the west of the Great Red Spot appears to be continuing.... this might be the "...resumption of normal convective ('rifting') activity there, in which case the [South Equatorial Belt] will probably not fade this year."  There's also a deep-red barge sat in the brown SEB that appears rather dramatic.

Meanwhile, Juno is on its way for the 11th perijove encounter on February 7th, and with luck, we'll have a whole variety of Earth-based observatories (VLT included) pointing towards the giant planet...

January 16th 2018 image from Anthony Wesley.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

PhD Studentships for 2018

Tips for Student Reviews/Reports

[Health warning: personal preferences may differ between researchers!]

One of the key skills being developed in an undergraduate or graduate degree is the ability to summarise and communicate complex ideas in a succinct and accessible way.  This is tested several times during the Physics degree course here at Leicester, and common mistakes can lead to lost marks.  Here's a list of my own personal preferences for reviews and reports, in case they're of use to the wider community.

  • Three Ts:  Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them.  Repetition of key points helps to reinforce them.  You’re telling a story.
  • Central Theme:  Use the introduction to define a central question or thesis that your review will address, and keep referring back to this in each Section and in the Conclusion.  That way, the reader will understand how each particular section fits into the wider review.
  • Summarise sections:  At the end of a section, before moving on, try to include a few sentences/statements to say where we are in the review – what is the take-home message of the previous section, and what are we going to look at next?  This helps to avoid abrupt transitions between sections.
  • Numbered Sections:  Use numbered sections and subsections to break up large sections of text, and to make it easy to refer both forwards and backwards to different sections (signposting).
  • Figures:  Make sure that figures are referred to in the main text, so that the reader knows when they should be looking at a particular chart, table, or diagram.  Ensure that the caption contains sufficient information to explain what the reader is seeing, and contains either a source (Author et al, yyyy) or a web URL for the origin.  Ensure figures have a sufficient size to be useful.
  • References:  Avoid references to ‘NASA’, ‘ESA’, ‘Met Office’, etc. – if the information came from a weblink without a distinct author/year, use a footnote to provide the link.  If the information came from a primary source, use the ‘Author et al., (yyyy)’ format and include in your bibliography.
  • Text boxes:  Sometimes definitions or brief digressions are required in a review, so make use of text boxes (placed in the document like figures and referred to in the main text) rather than breaking up the flow of the report.
  • Columns:  The use of two columns helps to break up large blocks of text and is easier on the eye.
  • Keep to the point:  Don’t be tempted to go off topic or to introduce information that isn’t relevant to the central theme of the project – this can just lead to confusion and dilutes your take-home messages.
  • Proof-read:  Read it over and over again, even out loud, to make sure that the sentences flow together and make the points you’re intending.

Friday, 17 November 2017


This month I was contacted by a reporter from 'Space Boffins' to ask some questions about Triton, the captured Kuiper Belt Object orbiting Neptune.  Here are my replies....

How much of a surprise was the data from Triton, when it was first seen by Voyager 2?
By the time it reached Neptune, the Voyager missions had already cemented themselves as the most important interplanetary missions of all time.  But Uranus had been somewhat of a disappointment - like Titan before it, the skies of Uranus appeared bland and without the dramatic atmospheric activity shown by Jupiter and Saturn.  In the summer of 1989, Neptune went from a mere point of light, an astronomical object, to being a fully-resolved world in its own right.  What’s more, the icy moons of Saturn and Uranus, though geologically interesting, were simply cratered balls of ice and rock.  Who would’ve believed Triton would be any different?  When those first images came down, the onlookers at JPL were surprised (remember, this is way before 24-hour rolling news or Twitter) - a distant moon of a distant world appeared geolocically active, with geysers erupting from the young, frozen ice and nitrogen surface of ridges, plains, depressions and fissures.  Far from a geologically-dead world, this was an active environment producing its own tenuous atmosphere, and is a good ambassador for the more distant (and harder to reach) objects from the Kuiper Belt.

To what extent is the moon an oddity?
It’s that sense that Triton is an interloper in the Neptune system, that it shouldn’t be there, but that it’s a representative of the unusual worlds even further from the Sun.  We’ve seen so tantalisingly little of it compared to the satellites of the giant planets, and after the Pluto flyby revealed the extreme and unexpected geological activity of that distant world, a return trip to Triton - our most accessible example of a captured KBO - has to be on the cards.

Surprising that it’s not inert but has geysers (activity at such a distance from the Sun)?
Triton’s surface certainly shows all the signs of icy volcanism, which will have shaped and resurfaced the moon over the millennia.  Where the internal energy comes from to power that activity is unclear - tidal stresses, like those that keep Europa’s internal oceans liquid and Io as the most volcanically active place in the solar system, seem to be insufficient.  It’s interesting that the N2 geysers all appeared to occur where the sunlight falling on Triton was the strongest, so the action of solar heating destabilising the surface layers must play a role in the geysers, which are distinct from the larger scale evidence of cryovolcanism.

How frustrating is it that you’ve got such little data on it?
Excruciating!  A whole world just waiting there for humankind to discover, map, and understand (the same is true of much of the Uranian and Neptunian systems).  But thank heavens that NASA had the ambition and tools to get us what little data we have - I hope that ESA and NASA, working together, will one day build on the legacy of the Voyagers.

What stage are missions in development to visit Neptune and its moons?
For the past decade or so, there have been very positive signs that the agencies on both sides of the Atlantic are taking the ice giants very seriously.  Back in 2009, our community wrote a series of ‘white papers’ proposing the myriad exciting reasons to mount a mission to the ice giants as a natural successor to the outrageously successful Cassini mission.  Subsequently, an ice giant flagship mission was recommended by the US decadal survey as their 3rd priority (after another Mars rover in 2020 and the Europa Clipper mission, currently in its implementation phase).  At the same time, European scientists began to throw around an idea for a Uranus mission called Uranus Pathfinder (led by UK scientists) - this was submitted to ESA’s call for medium class missions twice, and also as a ‘large class’ mission to follow JUICE (the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, also in the implementation phase).  None of these mission concepts proceeded to the crucial next step (a formal study by ESA), but they were deemed sufficiently exciting that the panels urged us to keep fighting the good fight.  The acknowledgement was that the time of the ice giants would come, eventually.

Then, last year, NASA and ESA worked jointly on a ‘Science Definition Team’ for a future ice giant mission, evaluating the pros and cons (both scientifically, financially, and technologically).  They looked at flyby spacecraft, orbiters, atmospheric probes, and even dual spacecraft, one for each of the ice giants.  An orbiter, along with a probe, is probably the most natural choice - think of a long-lived Cassini-like mission, complete with a 21st century instrument complement, executing multiple flybys of Triton to map it surface geology and chemistry, the tenuous atmosphere and geological activity, and maybe its subsurface using ice penetrating radar, magnetometers and gravity measurements.  The extensive report was presented to both NASA and ESA (and the community at large), with the recommendation being for further study and refinement.  But I hope that this will influence the next US decadal survey to put an ice giant mission right at the top of the list, with international partnership as a key enabling element (maybe a NASA orbiter with an ESA-provided probe)?

Could there be life there?
Everywhere we look in the outer solar system, we find surprises.  Geologically dead?  No.  Solid balls of ice?  No.  Inexplicable geological activity?  Yes.  One of the common themes emerging is that these icy worlds possess subsurface oceans - hidden, dark, abyssal seas that could host the right conditions to be labelled ‘habitable’.  That is, we need to ensure that the water, chemicals, and source of energy are present at the same location and for long aeons of time.  Europa Clipper and JUICE will answer that question in the jovian system.  But to address this for an ice giant satellite needs a dedicated mission.

Any chance of landing on Neptune or Triton?
Uranus and Neptune are both perfect targets for atmospheric entry probes, descending under parachute into the skies of the ice giant to sniff out the chemical species that are present.  With no atmosphere to slow it down, a landing on one of their moons (Triton included) would be a tremendous challenge, not least because you need to take enough fuel with you to slow yourself down.  But never say never, and if, after a first proper reconnaissance of an ice giant system we decide that we simply must go back and land, then I’m sure we’ll be inventive enough to find a way.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

New Paper: Disruption of Saturn's Equatorial Oscillation

A decade ago, when Cassini was still in its prime mission at Saturn, thermal observations from the Composite Infrared Spectrometer revealed that Saturn’s equatorial atmosphere exhibited an alternating pattern of temperatures and winds that bore a striking resemblance to similar features on Earth and Jupiter.  Immediately this suggested some shared atmospheric traits between Earth and the giant planets, despite the considerable differences in the environments of the terrestrial and gas giant worlds.  Equatorial oscillations may be a fundamental feature of planetary atmospheres, a regular heartbeat that teaches us about the forces shaping the tropical stratosphere - namely atmospheric waves launched upwards by convective plumes at deeper levels.

When we started this particular project, the intention was to track the descending pattern over the entire length of the Cassini mission, through a full cycle.  We’d measure the descent rates and study the influence of the stratospheric pattern on the equatorial winds.  It was then a considerable surprise to see that the pattern was eradicated in 2011-2013, and the dates were a smoking gun for the cause - waves emanating from the Great Northern Storm, tens of thousands of kilometres away.

This connection between seemingly-unrelated patterns is well-known on Earth - for example, the influence of the El Nino Southern Oscillation on meteorological patterns across the globe.  Earth is a highly coupled system in delicate balance, and these new results suggest that the same is true of Saturn.  Indeed, in 2016 the Earth’s QBO exhibited a similar disruption, that was shown at the time to be unprecedented in the 60-year record of QBO observations.  The authors of that study suggested a source of waves in Earth’s northern hemisphere disrupting the regular pattern, and we were seeing exactly the same thing on Saturn.  Once again, the atmospheres of Earth and Saturn were shown to have similarities despite the vast differences between these two worlds.

This work helps us to understand the common forces driving the tropical atmospheres on multiple planets, and shows that these atmospheres are highly coupled and intricate systems that are susceptible to perturbations by grand meteorological events, like the Great Northern Storm of 2011.

Cassini carried an instrument called the Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS), for which I’m a co-investigator.  This instrument measures thermal infrared spectra from 7 microns out to 1000 microns, and by modelling these spectra as a function of latitude and time, we can derive the oscillating pattern of temperatures and winds.  If you look at the four movies here (particularly the second one):
…you can see the shifting patterns.

Although Cassini has sadly come to an end, we will be continuing to track this oscillatory pattern and the eruptions of storm activity using Earth-based assets.  The University of Leicester is involved in a programme of observations from the VLT, Subaru and IRTF observatories to track Saturn’s seasonal evolution over long spans of time.  Furthermore, we will be employing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) when it launches in 2019 to catch another glimpse of Saturn’s tropical atmosphere, as part of a ERC-funded programme called GIANTCLIMES.

Full details of the article, published in Nature Astronomy, can be found here: