Thursday, 30 March 2017

ERC-Funded Postdoc in our Team

Advertising the first ERC-funded postdoctoral position in Leicester's Planetary Atmospheres team - please do get in touch with any queries!

Postdoctoral Research Associate in Giant Planet Atmospheres
Physics and Astronomy Department, University of Leicester
Salary Grade 7 - £32,958 to £38,183 per annum
Full-time open-ended contract subject to external fixed-term funding.
Full Details:

Ref: SEN00830

The Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Leicester wishes to appoint a postdoctoral researcher to undertake a programme of original research in the field of giant planet atmospheric science, utilising remote sensing data from a range of space- and ground-based observatories.  You will join a planetary science team addressing the aims of a grant awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to Dr. Leigh Fletcher.  The appointment will initially be for a period of up to four years.

The “GIANTCLIMES” programme seeks to study the climates of the four giant planets over large spans of time, allowing us to investigate cycles of meteorology, circulation, and chemical processes shaping the environments on these worlds.  Inversions of planetary spectra, from the ultraviolet to the microwave, will be used to reconstruct these atmospheres in three dimensions to explore their temporal variability and the processes coupling different atmospheric regimes. You will analyse subsets of data from Juno, Cassini, Spitzer and the James Webb Space Telescope (among others), complemented by observations from Earth-based facilities.  We are therefore particularly interested in candidates with a background in planetary atmospheres and spectroscopic modelling techniques, but all applicants with a strong background in planetary science are encouraged to apply.

You will be expected to carry out independent and collaborative research for this project and to disseminate the results to the international scientific community.  There will be significant opportunities to collaborate within Leicester’s Planetary Science team (whose existing research includes planetary magnetospheres, ionospheres, atmospheres and surface science), Earth Observation group, and with an international team specialising in radiative transfer and spectral inversion for planetary atmospheres.

In addition to the online application form, applicants are requested to provide:  [1] a CV and publication list; [2] academic references covering your research career to date; [3] a cover letter detailing how your prior experience and future research aims are commensurate with the broad aims of the programme outlined above.  Full details on how to apply can be found here:

Informal enquiries are welcome and should be made to Dr. Leigh Fletcher on

The closing date for this post is midnight on 5 April 2017.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Vice Chair of COSPAR Sub-Commission B5

I received an email this morning from Aaron Janofsky, Associate Director of the COSPAR Secretariat, confirming that I have been elected as the Vice Chair of COSPAR Sub-Commission B5 (Outer Planets and their Satellites).  Linda Spilker, Cassini's Project Scientist and Chair of this Sub-Commission, had first asked me about this at the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting last October, but I'm delighted to be helping out with COSPAR for the next three years (2016-2020).

The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), now the International Council for Science, established its Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) during an international meeting in London in 1958. COSPAR's first Space Science Symposium was organised in Nice in January 1960.  From the COSPAR website:

"COSPAR's objectives are to promote on an international level scientific research in space, with emphasis on the exchange of results, information and opinions, and to provide a forum, open to all scientists, for the discussion of problems that may affect scientific space research. These objectives are achieved through the organisation of Scientific Assemblies, publications and other means."

There are eight scientific commissions.  I am now a member of Scientific Commission B: Space Studies of the Earth-Moon System, Planets, and Small Bodies of the Solar System.  This covers "the planetary bodies of the solar system (including the Earth), especially evolutionary, dynamic and structural aspects; planetary atmospheres are included insofar as these are essential attributes of their main body; smaller bodies, including satellites, planetary rings, asteroids, comets, meteorites, and cosmic dust."  It consists of five sub-commissions:

  • B1: Small Bodies
  • B2:  International Coordination of Space Techniques for Geodesy
  • B3: The Moon
  • B4: Terrestrial Planets
  • B5:  Outer Planets and Satellites

COSPAR Scientific Assemblies are held every two years (even numbered years). These events attract currently between 2000 and 3000 participants.  The 42nd Assembly will be held 14 - 22 July 2018 in Pasadena, California, and I've been helping to organise the giant planet sessions.  Previous assemblies during my academic career have included:

2016 - Istanbul, Turkey - sadly cancelled at short notice, so I didn't get to visit Istanbul.
2014 - Moscow, Russia
2012 - Mysore, India
2010 - Bremen, Germany - my second COSPAR meeting.
2008 - Montréal, Canada
2006 - Beijing, China - my first experience of COSPAR as an ESA-sponsored student.

Exciting times ahead!

Friday, 17 March 2017

JUICE Moves into Phase C

Some excellent news to round the week off - the JUICE mission has passed its PDR (Preliminary Design Review), which means that the mission can officially move from Phase B2 (the preliminary definition phase, where we've been ever since mission adoption in November 2014) into Phase C (the detailed definition phase).  This is a pretty important milestone in the life cycle of a mission, which proceeds throughout this whole implementation phase (B2/C/D/E1).  Phase D is the qualification and production phase, and Phase E1 is the start of the utilisation phase.  The most exciting thing is that the main contractor, Airbus DS, can begin building the prototypes.

From the ESA website:

JUICE will be equipped with 10 state-of-the-art instruments, including cameras, an ice-penetrating radar, an altimeter, radio-science experiments, and sensors to monitor the magnetic fields and charged particles in the Jovian system.

In order to ensure it can address these goals in the challenging Jovian environment, the spacecraft's design has to meet stringent requirements.

An important milestone was reached earlier this month, when the preliminary design of JUICE and its interfaces with the scientific instruments and the ground stations were fixed, which will now allow a prototype spacecraft to be built for rigorous testing.

The review also confirmed that the 5.3 tonne spacecraft will be compatible with its Ariane 5 launcher. Operating in the outer Solar System, far from the Sun, means that JUICE needs a large solar array: two wings of five panels each are foreseen, which will cover a total surface area of nearly 100 m², capable of providing 820 W at Jupiter by the end of the mission.

After launch, JUICE will make five gravity-assist flybys in total: one each at Mars and Venus, and three at Earth, to set it on course for Jupiter. Its solar panels will have to cope with a range of temperatures such that when it is flying closer to the Sun during the Venus flyby, the solar wings will be tilted to avoid excessive temperatures damaging the solar cells.

The spacecraft's main engine will be used to enter orbit around the giant planet, and later around Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede. As such, the engine design has also been critically reviewed at this stage.

Special measures will allow JUICE to cope with the extremely harsh radiation that it must endure for several years around Jupiter. This means careful selection of components and materials, as well as radiation shielding.

One particularly important topic is JUICE's electromagnetic 'cleanliness'. Because a key goal is to monitor the magnetic fields and charged particles at Jupiter, it is imperative that any electromagnetic fields generated by the spacecraft itself do not interfere with the sensitive scientific measurements. This will be achieved by the careful design of the solar array electrical architecture, the power distribution unit, and the reaction wheels – a type of flywheel that stabilises the attitude.

The review also ensured that JUICE will meet strict planetary protection guidelines, because it is imperative to minimise the risk that the potentially habitable ocean moons, particularly Europa, might be contaminated by viruses, bacteria or spores carried by the spacecraft from Earth. Therefore, mission plans ensure that JUICE will not crash into Europa, on a timescale of hundreds of years.

"The spacecraft design has been extensively and positively reviewed, and confirmed to address the many critical mission requirements," says Giuseppe Sarri, JUICE Project Manager. "So far we are on schedule, and are delighted to begin the development stage of this ambitious large-class mission."
ESA's industrial partners, led by Airbus, now have the go-ahead to start building the prototype spacecraft units that will subjected to tough tests to simulate the conditions expected during launch, as well as the extreme range of environmental conditions.

Once the design is proved beyond doubt, the flight model – the one that will actually go into space – will be built.

TEXES on Gemini North: Blazing Jupiter!

All of this week the TEXES team has been out on Mauna Kea running a programme of observations that included ten hours of time scanning Jupiter's tropics.  I proposed this to solve a key issue that we have - TEXES has provided fantastic spectral maps from the IRTF but with a limited spatial resolution from the 3-m primary mirror, whereas VISIR on the VLT (among others) provides superb imaging at high spatial resolution, but without decent spectroscopy.  By moving TEXES to Gemini-North for this special run, we were able to get the best of both worlds.

Sadly neither I nor the Leicester team could join them this time, but Tommy Greathouse, Glenn Orton, James Sinclair and Rohini Giles were sending me nearly continuous updates, and provided the data in a raw form on Tuesday morning.  I processed the spectral data into a map at just one wavelength (1165 cm-1, which senses deep temperatures and jovian aerosols, and always contains a lot of structure) to share in the Gemini e-cast.  There's also a nifty 3-colour image, generated from three wavelengths in the same spectral setting, which we'll be using in a future GeminiFocus magazine.  Needless to say, we're all pretty delighted with these data - the highest spatial-resolution spectral map of Jupiter ever acquired, period.  This is going to keep us going for years.

TEXES Gemini and Jupiter:

To truly understand the atmospheric phenomena at work in Jupiter, we must investigate three different domains - spatial, temporal, and spectral.  Past investigations have allowed us to target one of these domains, but today we are able to explore all three by combining the Gemini observatory, the TEXES spectrograph and the worldwide campaign of Earth-based support for NASA’s Juno mission.  This three-colour map reveals Jupiter’s weather layer near 8.6 microns, where Jupiter’s spectrum is governed by temperatures, cloud opacity, and gaseous species like deuterated methane and phosphine. The map was constructed from spectral scans over two nights (March 12th-13th 2017), and represents the highest spatial resolution ever achieved by the TEXES instrument.  Every pixel in this map represents a spectrum of Jupiter.  Red colours use a wavelength that senses deep, warm temperatures at the cloud tops; blue colours sense cooler temperatures at higher altitudes near the tropopause, and green colours sense an intermediate altitude.  The equatorial zone and the Great Red Spot in the bottom right are cold and dark at all three wavelengths.  The turbulent wake to the west of the Great Red Spot is darker (cooler) and distinct from the rest of Jupiter’s South Equatorial Belt.  An outbreak of dark, cold and cloudy plumes can be seen in the southern belt near 270W.  Finally, the pattern of cold, cloudy plumes (dark) and warm, bright hotspots (white) can be seen encircling the planet near latitude 7N, on the edge of Jupiter’s Northern Equatorial Belt.

Credit:  TEXES team & L.N. Fletcher/University of Leicester, UK.

From the Gemini e-cast #93 (March 16th 2017)

TEXES, the visiting high-resolution mid-IR spectrograph, is back for another visit on Gemini North. This time the instrument is supporting a wide-ranging set of science programs, including summer-solstice observations of Saturn’s polar vortex, three programs studying Jupiter’s atmosphere, stratosphere and aurora, and (beyond the solar system) studies of the chemistry of the gaps in protoplanetary disks, organics in hot star-forming cores and the motions of gas in embedded super star clusters. At mid-IR wavelengths most of the seeing is due to image motion, which is removed by the rapid tip-tilt secondary mirror on Gemini, producing diffraction-limited images as small as 0.3 arcseconds without the use of adaptive optics.

The TEXES team has been sharing part of each night with GMOS CCD commissioning activities, reported in the previous story in this newscast, and the team is grateful for their flexibility in accommodating this TEXES visitor instrument run.

The TEXES team and Gemini staff preparing the instrument to mount on the up-looking port of Gemini North in March 2017. The beachballs are part of the instrument’s helium overflow system.

Jupiter in the 8-micron region, in a spectral scan taken by TEXES on Gemini North, March 2017. Note the cool wake of the Great Red Spot (lower right). For more details and a full color mid-IR image of the Jupiter weather layer, see the upcoming April issue of GeminiFocus. Image credit: TEXES team & L.N. Fletcher/University of Leicester, UK.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Ten Years of the European Research Council

I was honoured to be listed among Leicester's ERC grant holders in a recent press release coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the European Research Council.  A copy of the text can be found below, or via Leicester's website:

More details of this anniversary can be found here:

Researchers based at UK institutions won the largest share of mid-career and proof-of-concept grants handed out by the European Research Council in the latest awards rounds.

The news comes in the week that the European Research Council – a success story of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme – marks its tenth anniversary with ‘ERC week’ (13-17 March) and celebrates its impact on strengthening Europe as a global centre of excellence in research.

The University of Leicester is a part of that success story having secured almost €10 million of ERC funding since 2011 – highly prestigious awards given only to ‘frontier’ research projects. ERC grant holders are in good company with some previous grant holders going on to win a Nobel Prize or to be awarded the Fields Medal.

UK-based researchers received a total of 58 grants in the latest Consolidator Grant round, equivalent to 18% of the awards handed out. This was followed by 48 for researchers located in Germany, 43 in France and 29 in the Netherlands.

Ten of the 44 Proof-of-Concept grants awarded by the ERC on 31 January went to researchers who will work at UK universities. Germany and Spain will host the second and third most grantees with six and five recipients respectively. This is the third time that the UK has topped the Proof-of-Concept awards recipient list since it voted to leave the EU in June 2016.

Leicester’s ERC grant holders include: Leigh Fletcher- Physics Consolidator Grant (2016) c. E €2 million.; Richard Alexander - Physics Consolidator Grant (2015) c. €2 million; Clare Anderson - History Starting Grant  (2013) – c. €1.5 million; Laura Morales - Politics Starting Grant  (2011) – c. €1.5 million; and David Mattingly - Archaeology Advanced Grant (2011) – c. €2.5 million. You can find out a bit more about their groundbreaking research on the Research and Enterprise funding pages.

Professor Iain Gillespie, Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise commented: “We are very pleased to celebrate the achievements of our European Research Council (ERC) grant holders on the ten-year anniversary of the European Research Council scheme.

“These researchers epitomise leadership in world-class research, and we are proud that they also represent Leicester’s continuing, strong engagement with the European research community.”

Academic and research staff are reminded that the Treasury is continuing to financially underwrite UK participation in EU projects submitted before any official Brexit takes place. Funding will be guaranteed for UK organisations submitting projects before an official exit, even if the project will continue beyond the UK's membership of the European Union.