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Planetary & Space Sciences

Image: ESA-J.Huart

Welcome to the Planetary and Space Sciences Discipline (PSS) 

Our research covers a wide range of Solar System science and exploration. We investigate the origin and evolution of the Solar System, through the physical, geological, chemical and biological processes that drive it. We use laboratory and space mission experiments, remote observation, environmental simulation and modelling to investigate the surfaces and atmospheres of the terrestrial planets, the Moon, asteroids, comets and extraterrestrial materials.

Research activity in PSS is funded mostly by the UK Science & Technology Funding Council (STFC), the European Space Agency and European Union, but also draws in support from other research councils, charities and industry.

PSS has a long history of involvement in major Solar System exploration missions through the exploitation of instruments developed at the OU, such as on Cassini Huygens, Stardust, Genesis and Rosetta, and through international collaborative teams. PSS members are active in the development of new mission proposals and studies with ESA, other space agencies and national programmes.

Our extensive laboratory facilities are broadly sub-divided into those used to characterise the chemistry and isotopic composition of matter in the Solar System or the simulation of Earth and Planetary processes. Instruments include start-of-the-art commercially sourced (e.g. nano-SIM;FIB-SEM; laser Raman microprobe; MS and GC-MS) as well as unique instruments developed in-house (e.g. ‘Finesse’ mass spectrometer; Mars atmosphere and surface simulation chambers; Cometary surface simulation chamber; All-Angle Light Gas Gun). These are backed up by clean rooms and sample preparation facilities, instrument development laboratories and an extensive meteorite collection.

The research areas within PSS are all inter-connected – with many activities spanning a number of different approaches such as sample analysis, spacecraft in situ and remote observation, simulation and lab experiment and with strong links with the Space Instrumentation and Astronomy Disciplines and areas of the Department of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems.

Research in PSS addresses a broad range of scientific problems across planetary science, from the very creation of the elements through the formation of the gas and dust cloud that went on to form our Solar System to the formation, evolution and current environments of planetary bodies. The principal areas of current research include:

  • Meteorites and Interplanetary Dust: Offer the opportunity to investigate the formation of the elements, conditions between the stars, and the formation of our Solar System and its planetary bodies through laboratory analysis of extra-terrestrial samples. Particular areas of interest are oxygen isotope analysis and the role of water in the early Solar System; the origin of chondrules; Interplanetary Dust Particle properties as tracers of comet formation; the origin and modification of organics in meteorites.
  • Asteroids: Exploring their chemical and physical properties, origin and evolution including the terrestrial impact hazard, through analysis of meteorites, Earth-based observations, space missions and laboratory impact studies.
  • Comets: Investigating the chemical and physical properties of comets and their formation in the outer solar nebula through laboratory analysis of NASA Stardust samples, instrumentation on board the ESA Rosetta mission and Earth-based observations.
  • The Moon: Investigation of the inventory of volatiles and their role in the evolution of lunar materials through laboratory analysis of lunar samples and future mission design.
  • Mars: Exploration of the martian surface environment, using satellite imaging, atmospheric modelling, instrumentation for ExoMars and analysis of martian meteorites.
  • Mercury: Investigation of the geology and surface composition through involvement in the Messenger and Bepi-Colombo missions.
  • Titan: Following up our successful involvement in the Huygens lander with simulation of the Titan environment and new mission studies.
  • Planetary atmospheric modelling: Understanding atmospheres from global scale to the near-surface heat and volatile exchange processes on terrestrial planets.
  • Thermal processes: Modelling of thermal emission from atmosphereless bodies to investigate their physical and dynamical evolution.
  • Astrobiology: Exploring the extreme conditions where life can exist and its fate in the environment of space.

We have a vibrant community of research staff and PhD students, with regular opportunities for those interested in Planetary Sciences. Members of PSS contribute to a range of undergraduate courses - reflecting the multi-disciplinary nature of PSS research.

Dr Simon Green
Head of Planetary & Space Sciences

Planetary & Space Sciences