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Terra Hunting - extreme precision mass-measurements of Earth-like worlds

School of Mathematics and Physics | PHD
Applications are now CLOSED
Funding
Unfunded
Reference Number
MAP/2020/09
Application Deadline
14 February 2020
Start Date
1 October 2020

Overview

Despite the fact that astronomers have discovered over 4,000 extrasolar planets orbiting other stars, none of these planets resemble our own Earth. The reasons for this are many. For example, the detection methods needed to detect and fully characterise Earth-analogues are biased towards high-mass, large-radius planets in short orbits. In addition, surface motions and magnetic activity on the host star introduce signals larger than those expected when employing the Doppler wobble technique to measure the mass of an Earth-analogue. Finally, only recently (with the commissioning of ESPRESSO) have instruments reached the precisions needed to measure the mass of an Earth-analogue alien planet. Nonetheless, we are rapidly detecting ever smaller and less-massive terrestrial (rocky) worlds in increasingly long orbits. Looking to the medium-term, the ~€600M European Space Agency PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations) mission is specifically designed to detect the tiny dips of light caused by the transits of Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones around other Sun-like stars. Due to launch in ~2027, PLATO will discover the locations of these Earth-analogue candidates. However, only by determining the masses of exoplanets via the Doppler wobble method can these discoveries be confirmed, and their densities and compositions ascertained. Unfortunately, astrophysical noise sources (due to signatures of stellar activity such as star spots and plage) as well as other surface inhomogeneities (e.g. granulation and meridional flows) can mask the Doppler signatures of such planets. Indeed, such astrophysical signals are now what fundamentally limits our ability to confirm Earth-2.0 - not the quality of our instruments.

The aim of this PhD is to quantify and understand the effects of stellar activity on Doppler wobble measurements - performing cutting edge science crucial to the discovery of Earth-sized planets as well as for studying the evolution of planetary systems. At QUB, we have discovered a new set of hundreds of stellar-activity indicators - hitherto unrealised. These new activity indicators contain a wealth of information on the location, size, and physical nature of the stellar activity on the observed star. We wish to now use these new indicators to track and predict the amplitude of the astrophysical signals they produce, and remove these from the observed Doppler wobble measurements needed to determine planetary masses. This fits into a global effort exploiting a number of world-class facilities in which QUB plays a prominent role. For example, we have recently joined the Terra Hunting Experiment, an ambitious decade-long intense Doppler wobble survey of ~40 stars led by the 2019 Nobel prize winner Prof. Didier Queloz. We are also one of 3 UK members of the HARPS-N (High Accuracy Radial-velocity Planet Searcher) international consortium (including Harvard and Geneva), and also have access to the HARPS-N Solar telescope, which provides exoplanet observation-grade Doppler wobble measurements of our own Sun. It is expected that the PhD student will contribute to these projects as a natural by-product of his/her work.

Project Summary
Supervisor

Dr Chris Watson


Mode of Study

Full-time: 3 years


Apply now Register your interest

Physics overview

The scientific research within the School of Mathematics and Physics was highly rated in the 2014 REF peer-review exercise, with 70% of research being judged as internationally excellent or world-leading. Physics research activity in the School is focused into five specific Research Centres; all members of academic staff belong to one of these Research Centres, listed below.

Astrophysics (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Francis Keenan (f.keenan@qub.ac.uk)

Atomistic Simulation (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Dr Myrta Gruening (m.gruening@qub.ac.uk)

Nanostructured Media (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Marty Gregg (m.gregg@qub.ac.uk)

Plasma Physics (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Marco Borghesi (m.borghesi@qub.ac.uk)

Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Mauro Paternostro (m.paternostro@qub.ac.uk)

Registration is on a full-time or part-time basis, under the direction of a supervisory team appointed by the University. You will be expected to submit your thesis at the end of three years of full-time registration for PhD, or two years for MPhil (or part-time equivalent).

Physics Highlights
Career Development
  • Queen's graduates from Physics have secured employment through a number of companies such as Allstate, AquaQ Analytics, Citigroup, Deloitte, First Derivatives, PwC, Randox, Seagate, Teach First and UCAS.
World Class Facilities
  • Since 2014, the School has invested over £12 million in new world-class student and staff facilities. Maths and Physics students have their own teaching centre that opened in 2016, housing brand experimental physics laboratories, two large computer rooms plus a student interaction area with a new lecture theatre and study rooms.
Internationally Renowned Experts
  • The School has a continually growing international community of both undergraduate and postgraduate students and staff. Our research is conducted and recognised as excellent across the world. Staff are involved in cutting-edge research projects that span a multitude of fields.
Key Facts

  • Students will have access to our facilities, resources and our dedicated staff. The School of Maths & Physics is one of the largest Schools in the University. Staff are involved in cutting-edge research that spans a multitude of fields.
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Information on the implications of Brexit for prospective students.

Course content

Research Information

Research Themes
Astrophysics (PhD/MPhil)

You’ll be involved in the search for distant supernovae and where they came from; study the asteroid and comet population in the Solar system; look for planets orbiting other stars in our Galaxy; study flares and other dynamic processes in the atmosphere of the Sun. You’ll have the opportunity to spend extensive periods at world-leading research centres such as the European Southern Observatory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

At Queen’s we lead major European consortia and are supported by a multi-million pounds portfolio of research grants from a range of sources, including the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Royal Society, and European Union.

Research Themes
Atomistic Simulation (PhD/MPhil)

Atomistic Simulation is the development and use of theoretical and computational methods to study structural, dynamical, and optical properties of molecules, liquids, solids and plasmas at the nanoscale. Computational experiments are used to interpret existing experimental data and to predict phenomena yet unobserved.
You’ll study problems at the interfaces between condensed matter physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, and engineering. You’ll interact with laboratory-based colleagues at Queen's and internationally, addressing fundamental and/or practical questions, and you will develop and program novel simulation methodologies to model situations presently out of reach, like electronic excitations, optical properties of materials, and the interaction between electric currents, heat and light.

Themes that are presently studied in the ASC include: magnetism, 2-D materials, non-linear optics, plasmonics, laser and ion-matter interactions, radiation damage in biology and nuclear materials, conduction in nanowires, nucleation, and crystallisation. Tools include DFT and TDDFT, Many-body perturbation theory, classical molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo, and machine learning.

Research Themes
Centre for Nanostructured Media (PhD/MPhil)

Human history is defined by the materials we use to underpin our technology: stone, bronze, iron, silicon. As a PhD student in the Centre for Nanostructured Media, you will be playing a part in the development of materials systems which will, in some way, define our technology for the future. How can this not be exciting ? You will seek to reveal the physics of material behaviour at the boundary of current global knowledge and, at the same time, become proficient in techniques for materials growth, patterning and characterisation that are highly valued in high-tech companies and commercial research institutions, as well as in academic research settings. Our laboratories are extremely well-equipped for international-level research and our links to other research teams throughout the world in both academia and industry are strong and you should expect to travel, should you wish to, as part of your PhD experience.

Research Themes
Plasma Physics (PhD/MPhil)

Your research will involve identifying, and responding to, major contemporary issues within ionised matter physics, with major activities in laser- and electrically-produced plasmas, ultra-fast atomic and molecular physics and the interaction of ionising radiation and plasmas with matter, including biological systems. This research will employ local, national and international facilities, including some of the most powerful laser systems worldwide. You will also benefit from transferring your research findings into the industrial and medical sectors.

Research Themes
Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics (PhD/MPhil)

You’ll contribute to a body of work with recent major developments including strong field laser interactions with atoms and molecules, quantum information processing, quantum optics, and quantum thermodynamics, antimatter interactions with atoms and molecules, electron scattering by very complex targets such as the iron peak elements, and by Rydberg atoms, quantum many-body physics, ultra-cold atomic systems, and simulation of their features, and foundations of quantum mechanics.

Postgraduate research programmes within CNM provide experience and training in state-of-the art academic research: many of our research strands are world-leading, as evidenced by performance in REF2014. In addition, most of our postgraduate researchers are exposed to functional materials and photonics in major multinational companies.

Prof Marty Gregg - School of Mathematics and Physics
Career Prospects

Alumni Success
Our graduates have progressed into jobs such as Data Scientist, Software Engineer, Financial Software Developer, IT Graduate Associate, Technology Consultant, Research Physicist, Telescope Operator and R&D Engineer.
http://www.qub.ac.uk/directorates/sgc/careers/CareersInformationbySchoolandSector/MathsandPhysics/MathsandPhysicsCareerOptions/

People teaching you

Dr Myrta Gruening
Director of Research - Atomistic Simulation Centre
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Francis Keenan
Director of Research - Astrophysics Research Centre
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Marco Borghesi
Director of Research - Centre for Plasma Physics
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Marty Gregg
Director of Research - Centre for Nanostructured Media
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Mauro Paternostro
Director of Research - Centre for Theoretical and Atomic Molecular Physics
School of Maths and Physics

Learning Outcomes

Course structure

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Facilities
The School has invested over £12 million in new world-class student and staff facilities since 2014. A new teaching centre opened in 2016 which includes experimental physics laboratories, two large computer rooms and plenty of student study and interaction space.

Entrance requirements

Graduate
The minimum academic requirement for admission to a research programme is normally an Upper Second Class Honours degree from a UK or ROI HE provider, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University. Further information can be obtained by contacting the School of Mathematics and Physics.

International Students

For information on international qualification equivalents, please check the specific information for your country.

English Language Requirements

Evidence of an IELTS* score of 6.0, with not less than 5.5 in any component, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University is required. *Taken within the last two years

International students wishing to apply to Queen's University Belfast (and for whom English is not their first language), must be able to demonstrate their proficiency in English in order to benefit fully from their course of study or research. Non-EEA nationals must also satisfy UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) immigration requirements for English language for visa purposes.

For more information on English Language requirements for EEA and non-EEA nationals see: www.qub.ac.uk/EnglishLanguageReqs.

If you need to improve your English language skills before you enter this degree programme, INTO Queen's University Belfast offers a range of English language courses. These intensive and flexible courses are designed to improve your English ability for admission to this degree.

  • Academic English: an intensive English language and study skills course for successful university study at degree level
  • Pre-sessional English: a short intensive academic English course for students starting a degree programme at Queen's University Belfast and who need to improve their English.

Tuition Fees

Northern Ireland (NI) £4,407
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) £4,407
Other (non-UK) EU £4,407
International £21,300

More information on postgraduate tuition fees.

Physics costs

Depending on the area of research chosen there may be extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees.

Additional course costs

All Students

Depending on the programme of study, there may also be other extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees, which students will need to consider when planning their studies . Students can borrow books and access online learning resources from any Queen's library. If students wish to purchase recommended texts, rather than borrow them from the University Library, prices per text can range from £30 to £100. Students should also budget between £30 to £100 per year for photocopying, memory sticks and printing charges. Students may wish to consider purchasing an electronic device; costs will vary depending on the specification of the model chosen. There are also additional charges for graduation ceremonies, and library fines. In undertaking a research project students may incur costs associated with transport and/or materials, and there will also be additional costs for printing and binding the thesis. There may also be individually tailored research project expenses and students should consult directly with the School for further information.

How do I fund my study?
1.PhD Opportunities

Find PhD opportunities and funded studentships by subject area.

2.Doctoral Training Centres at Queen's

Queen's has eight outstanding competitive Doctoral Training Centres, with each one providing funding for a number of PhD positions and most importantly a hub for carrying out world class research in key disciplines.

3.PhD loans

The Government offers doctoral loans of up to £26,445 for PhDs and equivalent postgraduate research programmes for English- or Welsh-resident UK and EU students, £10,000 for students in Scotland and up to £5,500 for Northern Ireland students.

4.International Scholarships

Information on Postgraduate Research scholarships for international students.

Funding and Scholarships

The Funding & Scholarship Finder helps prospective and current students find funding to help cover costs towards a whole range of study related expenses.

How to Apply

Apply using our online Postgraduate Applications Portal go.qub.ac.uk/pgapply and follow the step-by-step instructions on how to apply.

Find a supervisor

If you're interested in a particular project, we suggest you contact the relevant academic before you apply, to introduce yourself and ask questions.

To find a potential supervisor aligned with your area of interest, or if you are unsure of who to contact, look through the staff profiles linked here.

You might be asked to provide a short outline of your proposal to help us identify potential supervisors.