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Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Professor of Planetary Sciences
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • School of Physical Sciences
  • ian.wright

Professional biography


Multidisciplinary scientist operating in interdisciplinary space.

My interests now are, in many ways, the same as when I was a youngster:

• I like to know how things work and, in some cases, why they don’t

• I want to see inside things, both literally and metaphorically

• I wonder why we are here, be it from a scientific or philosophical perspective


I have been a member of the Open University for three decades, prior to which I was at Cambridge University, completing my PhD and then starting post-doctoral work. My background is in instrument design and construction, elemental and isotopic analysis, cosmochemistry and space exploration.

I am the Principal Investigator for the Ptolemy instrument (part of the Rosetta mission), which is currently on the surface of a comet. Ptolemy was born out of many years of experience gained through designing and building novel instruments for use in the laboratory.

In 2009 I finished a 4-year term as Head of Department for what was then known as PSSRI – the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute. We said goodbye to PSSRI during Faculty re-structuring, after which, Planetary and Space Sciences (PSS) became a Discipline within the newly created Department of Physical Sciences. I was then the first Head of PSS stepping down from the role at the end of 2013. In 2015 the new Discipline of Space Instrumentation (SI) was created; I am currently a member of this.

The ethos of PSS/SI, like its forerunner, remains one of interdisciplinarity. We are a group of scientists of various backgrounds, who have come together because of a passion for exploring the natural world beyond Earth, and who wish to understand their home planet within its cosmic setting. In some cases this requires details; in others, we use a broad-brush. Either way there is a need for a multidisciplinary approach and an ability to operate across disciplines.

In recent times we have begun to broaden our remit to include a number of enterprise activities. I am delighted to see that a number of the people who have worked with me over the years, on what might be thought of as academic pursuits, are now using their expertise and skills in a broader portfolio of applications.

Research interests

When asked to describe myself in a research context I may use any of the following, depending upon circumstances: “planetary scientist”, “cosmochemist”, “meteoriticist”, “isotope chemist”, or “instrument scientist”. It reflects life in a multidisciplinary environment and demonstrates how many facets there are to people who work in “space”. At root my interests are in the origin and evolution of the Solar System, in particular, and solar systems in general. And since human beings are here to contemplate such phenomena, it is inevitable that one is also interested in the relationship of living things with the cosmos (from the hard science associated with the origin of life, to the difficulties of understanding consciousness, to the philosophical aspects of the anthropic principle). To make headway with these lofty ideals, the day job involves laboratory analyses of extraterrestrial materials (meteorites, samples from the Moon and Mars, cosmic dust, interstellar grains) to provide insights and constraints on specific formation mechanisms. In addition, I use the vehicles of space exploration and laboratory simulation to gain new perspectives on the nature and development of planetary environments beyond Earth. My speciality is in the measurement and comprehension of the stable isotope ratios of the biogenically important elements, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur.

These are some of the topics that I am currently involved with:

• Gerontology of pre-solar grains, and what constraints this brings to bear on the origin of the Solar System.

• Laboratory simulations to test various hypotheses regarding conditions on early Earth, with reference to the origin of life.

• Deployment of detailed geochemical techniques to elucidate the development of environmental conditions on Mars.

• Study of the nature of cometary surfaces.

• Development of sensors and instruments for analytical purposes.

• The use of immersive virtual realities for educational and outreach purposes.

Teaching interests

Over the years I have been involved with many OU courses including S102, S103, S104, S198, S269, S281, S283 and S288. My current interests in teaching center around delivery mechanisms and methods of course production, and whilst a fan of exploring all possible means of study, I think that reports of the death of the book are exaggerated.

Research Activity

Research groups

NameTypeParent Unit
Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR)CentreFaculty of Science
Cosmochemistry Research GroupGroupFaculty of Science
SUSTECH: Energy and Environmental Research UnitUnitFaculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology


Externally funded projects

Multi-instrument analysis of Rosetta data - Establishing a new paradigm for cometary activity and composition

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Lead29/Feb/201631/Aug/2018EC (European Commission): FP(inc.Horizon2020, H2020, ERC)
A multi-disciplinary, pan-European project to consider the implications of the results from the Rosetta space mission.