Exploring the Solar System
Modern planetary science at Oxford can be traced back to the work of Edmund Halley (1656–1742) who made observations of Mars, Venus, and Mercury, as well as his famous studies of the orbits of comets. Today Oxford University scientists work closely with NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide instruments and experiments for a wide range of space missions, and to analyse the data they send back to Earth.
Recent highlights include playing a major role in scientific planning and operations for ESA’s Venus Express, the first European mission to our nearest planetary neighbour. This carries the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS), a version of which is also on board the Rosetta probe, which is due to rendezvous with Comet Churyumov/Gerasimenko in 2014. The data from Venus is being used to study the planet’s inhospitable climate, caused by an extreme version of the same greenhouse mechanisms that cause global warming on the Earth.
Working with NASA and ESA
An Oxford University team are working with scientists in the USA to build a ‘water diviner’ for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (scheduled for launch in 2008): this project will use infrared cameras to search dark lunar craters for ice – deposits that could sustain a permanent base on the Moon. They were also part of the ESA team creating the Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury, scheduled for launch in 2013. Oxford’s role involves using infrared radiometry to explore the surface of the planet, investigating what makes up the icy deposits at its poles and revealing how heat flows from its semi-molten interior.
Scientists from Oxford have made significant contributions to a series of Mars missions: they worked on an infrared remote sounding instrument for the ill-fated Mars Observer and Mars Climate Orbiter projects, and then for the Mars Climate Sounder, which is now operating successfully in orbit. They are developing experiments for the forthcoming European Exomars rover, including collaborating on a seismometer looking for quake activity on Mars and the ‘umbilical cord’ for a mechanical ‘mole’ to discover what lies beneath the surface of the red planet.
Missions to Jupiter, Saturn and Venus
Past credits for research groups at Oxford include building or designing instruments or experiments for the Galileo (Jupiter) and Cassini (Saturn and Titan) missions, and building part of the payload for the first artificial satellite of Venus – the Pioneer Venus Orbiter – in 1979. This was the first instrumentation from the UK to travel to another planet.
Work on space experiments is complemented by research into creating computer models of the atmospheres of planets such as Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In particular, a detailed simulation of the climate of Mars (The Mars General Circulation Model) has been developed at Oxford in collaboration with the Laboratoire de Meteorologie Dynamique in Paris and the Instituto de Astrofisica in Granada.
This research is helping scientists to understand how the planet may have changed from a warm, wet past to its modern, desert-like state. Models simulating the circulation of the upper atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn are also being created and have been used to investigate the basic mechanisms that lie behind phenomena such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and the large-scale jets and eddies that occur on both gas giants. All this work on other planets is informed by, and can shed new light on, studies of Earth’s atmosphere. Researchers at Oxford have been involved in designing instruments and experiments for many Earth observation satellites including ESA’s Envisat (launched in 2002), NASA’s Aura satellite (launched in 2004) and the European MetOp satellite (launched in 2006), and carry out modelling of the atmosphere and oceans to understand the processes that maintain the Earth’s climate.
Support for planetary science research at Oxford comes from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (formerly the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council).