I chose do a PhD at The Open University because the project I was offered was just up my street – ‘Looking at data from Titan, Saturn’s largest moon’.
Titan is very interesting – it has clouds, rivers and lakes – but because the temperature on Titan is about -180 C, they’re all made of methane instead of water. It’s a little bit like the Earth was before life started. Methane is an organic molecule, and the sunlight on Titan breaks up the methane molecules allowing them to form a series of other organic products which may be important for life.
The OU’s Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute (PSSRI) was the main UK involvement in the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe which landed on Titan. My supervisor, Professor John Zarnecki, was the principal investigator on a series of instruments which were designed to measure the physical properties of Titan’s surface to tell us its composition. I worked on the sensor that measured the speed of sound in Titan’s atmosphere, which tells us how much gaseous methane there is in the atmosphere.
The facilities at PSSRI are second to none. They have space clearance level clean rooms. The scientific equipment is phenomenal. Another key bit of work they do is to analyse meteorites and samples from space using mass spectrometry, so the equipment is top grade. PSSRI has an international reputation, and I attended international conferences and presentations.
The skills I learnt during my PhD were invaluable for my career. After I completed my PhD I went to the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurement (FAAM) – a joint facility run by the Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council, based at Cranfield University. I’ve been working on instrumentation that flies on an aircraft and takes atmospheric measurements. This is a significant tool in the UK research community. We worked on the Icelandic volcanic eruptions, and if you saw an aircraft measuring ash on the news – that was us.
Now I am about to go to the University of Leeds for a three-year fellowship. I’ll still be working with aircraft operations, but as a scientist rather than operating staff. We’ll be based in Morocco measuring dust over the Sahara. We’ve got what was a 200-seater passenger aircraft, ripped out the seating and filled it with scientific instruments and computers.
I don’t think I would have ended up in this career without my PhD. The experience I got at the OU gave me a running start.
Dr Phil Rosenberg, UK. PhD: Huygens' Measurements of the Speed of Sound on Titan