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Department of Physics and Astronomy

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A PDF version of the SPARTAN job advert can be downloaded here.

Research in the Space, Planetary and Astrophysical Sciences

This page provides information about 2 and 3 year research studentships at the University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy, funded through the SPARTAN programme. For information on the SPARTAN short visit programme, please visit the SPARTAN Exchange Visits page.

Under the European Union's Framework 6 Marie-Curie programme, the SPARTAN project is creating a Centre of Excellence in the training of early stage researchers in the space, planetary (including Earth Observation) and astrophysical sciences in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester . The principal aims of this centre are to…

  • Provide a broad postgraduate training in space research that exposes students to different research disciplines and skills, leading to a recognized qualification (Masters degree or Doctorate).
  • Enable access to first class training in generic skills to students from outside the United Kingdom at a world-class centre for space research.
  • Develop a collaborative training network, through the placement of students supported by the centre for periods in other European institutions, and by hosting nationally funded students from these places.
  • Provide a flexible training environment that early stage researchers can adapt to their cultural and gender needs and in respect of their national education systems.
  • Key elements of the research programme will include space science & technology, earth observation and astrophysics, which are important foci in the Leicester centre.

Leicester offers PhD and Masters Programmes that lead to a higher degree through active research. PhD programmes are of 3 years duration and Masters Degrees are 2 years. SPARTAN provides a flexible suite of programmes based around these 2 and 3-year research degrees but with opportunities for researchers registered for higher degrees in other institutions to visit the Department for shorter periods (~3-6 months) for specific training. In addition, researchers registered for degrees at the University of Leicester will undertake collaborations and training in other European institutions for periods of 3-6 months.

There are three alternative modes of training in Space, Planetary and Astrophysical (SPA) science under the SPARTAN programme for an individual researcher:

•  Researcher registers at the Leicester for a 3-year PhD in a primary SPA topic. The researcher engages in the full post-graduate induction and skills training programme. Two periods of 3-6 months each will be spent working in one or two secondary areas (e.g. If a theoretical astronomer, some work on related instrumentation/observation or on an entirely separate SPA area). At least one of these sessions will be in an institution outside the host country and country of origin.

•  Researcher registers at the Host for a 2-year MPhil in a primary SPA topic. The researcher engages in a suitable subset of the post-graduate induction and skills training programme. One period of 3-6 months will be spent working in a secondary area. It is expected that this session will normally be in an institution outside the UK and country of origin of the researcher.

•  Researcher registers for a higher degree at an institution outside the UK . One or two periods of 3-6 months each (the number and duration will depend on the length of the higher degree course) will be spent working at the University of Leicester , undergoing training that is not available at the home institution.

The Choice of Space, Planetary and Astronomy Research Projects

A large number of projects are available within the auspices of the various research groups within the Department of Physics and Astronomy, covering the broad areas listed below. More detail can be found by referring to the home pages of the individual research groups, and also the current PhD opportunities page.

Radio and Space Plasma Physics

•  Solar-Terrestrial Physics
•  Planetary Magnetospheres
• Atmospheric Science

Earth Observation Science

  • Remote sensing
  • Atmospheric chemistry
  • Climate change and variability
  • Ocean and atmosphere dynamics
  • Global monitoring for environment & security

Space Projects & Instrumentation

•  Space Project development & management
•  Detector Physics
•  X-ray Optics

Planetary Science

  • Mars Exploration
  • Planetary environments
  • Extra-solar planet searches

Theoretical Astrophysics

•  Accretion Theory
•  Compact Binaries
•  Stellar Dynamics
•  Numerical Simulation

X-ray and Observational Astronomy

•  X-ray, UV, optical & IR Astronomy
•  Multiwavelength Astrophysics
•  Large data bases and data archives
•  e-Science

All projects are supported by access to a wide variety of current facilities, which the department either hosts or in which it participates through national and international collaborations. In-house expertise exists to support the researchers in the applying for time, where appropriate, and for using these facilities. These facilities often serve several research groups and include…

•  Computational

•  United Kingdom Astrophysical Fluids Facility – 128 CPU parallel supercomputer

•  HEX – a 64 processor parallel supercomputer for numerical modelling, belonging to the University

•  A new 256 processor Beowulf Cluster and large volume data storage, exclusively for Departmental use

•  The Leicester Database and Archive Service

•  The XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre (UK/ESA)

  • Space Observatories

•  Chandra X-ray Astronomy Satellite (NASA)

•  XMM-Newton X-ray Astronomy Satellite (ESA)

•  The Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (NASA)

•  Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/ESA)

•  Spitzer Space Telescope (NASA)


•  The SWIFT gamma-ray burst observatory (NASA/UK/Italy)

  • Solar System Missions

•  Cluster II (ESA)

•  Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn (NASA/ESA)

•  Bepi-Colombo (ESA)

•  ESA Aurora programme

  • Earth Observation


•  ERS-1 and ERS-2 (ESA)

•  Meteosat Second Generation (EUMETSAT)

  • Ground-based facilities

•  The CUTLASS HF radar (UK/Sweden/Finland)

•  EISCAT radar

•  The SPEAR vertical-looking HF radar ( UK )

•  UK ground-based optical telescopes

•  ESO ground-based optical telescopes

•  The Faulkes Robotic Telescopes

The training programme

The principal mode of training will be through research under the direct supervision of an academic mentor who is working in the chosen area. All researchers registered for a higher degree will be able to choose a research topic from the extensive list of possible projects and their mentor will then have the formal role of degree supervisor. A primary project will form the core of the training and the researcher will be expected to undertake some work in one (for the MPhil) or two (if registered for a PhD) other areas. These should be complementary to the primary project (e.g. observational/instrumental work related to a primary theoretical astrophysics project) but could be on entirely different topics (e.g. planetary science, with an extragalactic astronomy primary project), to broaden a researcher's background knowledge. Language training will also be available to researchers. This may be in English for students or visitors to the UK or in another language for those students undertaking visits elsewhere in Europe .

The higher degrees will be administered under the existing University of Leicester Graduate School arrangements. Within these, all postgraduate students are allocated a supervisor (in their research topic) and a personal post-graduate tutor (from a different research group to the supervisor). A student is expected to work closely with and meet regularly with their project supervisor. The personal tutor will monitor the overall pastoral care of the student through formal meetings on a few occasions per year. In their first year, all researchers funded by the SPARTAN programme will be registered as Advanced Postgraduate Students (APG) and receive a full course of induction and general training. Some of this will be undertaken at Departmental level and some will be through the Graduate School . All this training is recorded in a Postgraduate Training Passport and satisfactory completion of the induction courses is a requirement for transfer from APG to MPhil or PhD status at the end of the first year. A minimum number of two training courses must also be completed in each subsequent year. Details of the induction training and research level courses are given below.

Complementary Training

The induction programme for Advanced Postgraduate Students comprises the following courses.

•  Departmental introduction – safety procedures; postgraduate training and assessment.

•  Graduate school induction – includes: introduction to research; health; regulations; central services; ethics; networking; intellectual property/copyright; aims of a research programme.

•  Faculty induction – includes: University computing facilities; University library; general health and safety; record keeping and good research practice.

A variety of skills courses are offered to all postgraduate students across the University.

•  Demonstrating and small group teaching.

•  Introduction to the Unix computer operating system – in general use in SPA research.

•  Writing skills – scientific writing; preparing articles for publication; structuring papers; submitting papers, handling referees' comments.

•  Study skills – effective time management; reading skills; note making skills.

•  Powerful presentations – presentation ideas; oral presentations; poster presentations.

•  Protection and commercialization of intellectual property

•  Building a career skills portfolio – possible careers following study; what skills employers look for; identifying personal skills; personal action plan.

•  English language tuition, if needed.

•  Tuition in other languages for trips to other EU countries.

Within the Department of Physics and Astronomy, there is a range of lecture courses and workshops designed to develop research skills targeted at SPA research. In addition, higher (masters) level courses from the Department's specialist first degrees in Physics with Astrophysics and Physics with Space Science and Technology are particularly useful for early stage researchers who start their studies without specific expertise in SPA subjects.


•  High energy astrophysics

•  Relativity and black holes

•  Cosmological structures

•  Stellar evolution

•  Galaxies

•  The interstellar medium

Space Science

•  Detection of photons and charged particles

•  X-ray physics

•  Space science instrumentation

•  Launch vehicle dynamics

Planetary Science

•  Space plasmas

•  Earth Observation Science

•  Planetary science

•  Remote Sensing


•  Numerical analysis for physicists

•  Image and data processing using IDL

•  Fortran 90

•  Object-oriented programming (Java)

•  Programming in C

•  Dynamical systems

The University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is one of the UK 's leading research and teaching universities. The University was founded as a University College in 1921 and granted a Royal Charter in 1957. It has 18,568 students including 10,327 at postgraduate level. Many of these students are from overseas. There are 42 academic departments and 35 special divisions and centres located in six faculties. There is a University-wide Graduate School and an Institute of Lifelong Learning . The University employs approximately 3,000 staff and has been ranked in the UK 's top twenty universities in 2001 and 2002. It is also in the top 20 for research grant and contract income. There is an Accommodation Office, to assist students (particularly those from overseas) in finding suitable lodgings. Matters of recruitment and employment are dealt with by the Personnel Office.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy

The Department of Physics and Astronomy currently has a full-time academic staff complement of 30 (including 11 Professors) supported by over 100 research, technical and clerical staff. The Department is also host to 230 undergraduate students, following either BSc or MPhys degree courses, and over 40 postgraduate students registered for a higher degree.

The Department has a 40-year track record of internationally renowned academic research which attracts external funding, in the form of research grants and contracts, in excess of £5 million per annum. The main Physics building accommodates the Radio & Space Plasma Physics, X-ray & Observational Astronomy, Condensed Matter Physics and Theoretical Astrophysics Groups, as well as national centres for supercomputing, radar sounding and X-ray astronomy. A purpose built Space Research Centre (SRC) houses the Space Research Group and provides laboratories, clean rooms and other facilities for Instrumentation Research, Earth Observation Science and the Bio-imaging Unit. Space projects currently under development in the SRC include the X-ray camera for the SWIFT gamma-ray burst mission and the MIRI instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope. The SRC had a major role in the Beagle 2 Mars lander, will provide an instrument of the Bepi-Colombo Mercury mission and expects to be a key player in the future ESA Aurora programme for planetary exploration.

The research in all science departments in UK universities is externally and independently assessed every four years. On each of the three assessments carried out so far, in 1994, 1998 and 2002, we achieved a grade 5 rating, indicating research of international quality in virtually all areas. Research in astronomy, space and planetary science has always formed a major part of activities within the department, leading to the award of the Queen's Anniversary Prize for this work in 1994. The department was rated as excellent in the most recent assessment of Teaching Quality in UK universities.

Research Groups and Facilities

Theoretical Astrophysics - is one of the largest in the UK working in theoretical stellar astrophysics, with research focussing on studies of accretion discs, the evolution of interacting binaries, stellar collisions, and the dynamical evolution of stellar clusters. The group benefits from considerable and growing in-house supercomputing resources, and hosts the UK Astrophysical Fluids Facility (a 128-CPU national supercomputer facility for astrophysical fluid calculations). An important development is the EU-funded programme providing non-UK members of the EU with access to the UKAFF facility. There are also close links with the X-ray and Observational Astronomy Group.

Radio & Space Plasma Physics - is currently the largest in the UK working mainly on ground-based studies of the Earth's outer environment (the upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and magnetosphere) and allied areas. The basis of much of the Group's programme over recent years has lain in its technical expertise in the design, construction, and operation of radar systems for the study of the ionosphere and upper atmosphere of the Earth. At present the Group operates the CUTLASS radar system, with radars sited in Iceland and in Finland . These radars are operated in conjunction with other ground-based experimental facilities such as the EISCAT radars and ionospheric heater in northern Norway , as well as with Earth-orbiting spacecraft. A particular focus at present is the ESA Cluster space mission. The Group has recently completed building the SPEAR active radar system, which is deployed on Svalbard . New programmes of work involve the environments of the outer planets, with the Cassini space mission to Saturn, and studies of solar variability and climate. The overall programme includes large-scale computer modelling, as well as experimental investigation of atmospheric waves, using the meteor scatter radar technique.

Earth Observation Science - designs satellite instruments and utilises them to undertake research into the physical behaviour of our natural environment including climate change mechanisms. The programme is interdisciplinary, involving collaborative links with staff from a range of departments and includes a range of satellite and aircraft programmes, research focussing on atmospheric composition and dynamic modelling of the ocean atmosphere system. The group includes the co-ordinators of two European Commission Framework 5 programmes, MAPSCORE and TROTREP, and has extensive experience in European research. The group now plays a role in the atmosphere aspects of GMES and is very strongly involved in European satellite observations utilising infrared and ultraviolet/visible wavelengths. It includes the P.I. of the ATSR series of instruments of ERS-1/2 and ENVISAT, and has members who are key participants in the GERB Science Team (MSG), the SCIAMACHY science advisory group, and the MIPAS Expert Support Laboratory.

X-ray and Observational Astronomy - has a distinguished record in high-energy astrophysics, having played a leading role in X-ray observatories such as Ariel-V, Exosat, Ginga and Rosat, now continued with Chandra and XMM-Newton. Although there is still an emphasis on X-ray astronomy, recent staff appointments have led to a strengthening and broadening of the programme to include the use of the full range of ground-based and space-based facilities for multi-wavelength astronomy. Active research interests include the study of white and brown dwarf stars, stellar coronae, cataclysmic variables, supernova remnants, normal, starburst and active galaxies, clusters of galaxies, deep X-ray surveys, and the cosmic X-ray background radiation. Group members are also major users of large ground-based optical, infrared and mm telescopes, the VLA and MERLIN radio interferometers, and space observatories such as the Hubble Telescope and FUSE. In addition Leicester is the lead institution in the XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre and hosts the Leicester Database and Archive Service (LEDAS) and an ASTROGRID project team.

Computational facilities - The University and Department have a variety of computational facilities. The X-ray and Observational Astronomy group is part of the nationwide “Starlink” astronomical computer network, which provides general hardware resources and software support for all UK astronomers. The University also hosts three parallel processing supercomputer facilities. The UK Astrophysical Fluids Facility (UKAFF) is a SGI origin 3800 system comprising 128 processors. Time is allocated quarterly, by competitive submission and is open to all scientists working in a UK institution or in Europe , through the Framework 5 programme (but EU visitors can only get limited time). The HEX machine is an Origin 2400 64-processor machine belonging to the University and operated by the Centre for Mathematical Modelling. More recently the Department has purchased a 256 processor Beowulf cluster, providing parallel processing exclusively for Physics and Astronomy research groups as well as large (multi Terabyte) data storage and facilities.

The Space Research Centre - is part of the Physics and Astronomy Department and houses the infrastructure necessary for the fabrication and testing of ground-based and satellite-borne instruments. The Centre has the role of carrying out the space research programme of the University in collaboration with other members of the Department. It also has the aim of developing cross-departmental initiatives within the University. The main activities of the Space Research Centre are in the areas of instrumentation and missions for space astrophysics, planetary science, earth observation science, technology transfer and exploitation, undergraduate and postgraduate education, and public outreach.

The National Space Centre - The Department of Physics and Astronomy has a long-standing programme of Public Understanding of Science and Outreach. We regard issues concerning Science and Society to be of great importance and encourage all members of the department to participate in any way that is appropriate for them. This work has led to the creation of the National Space Centre (NSC), an educational visitor attraction that contains an exhibition, a space theatre, research facilities (visible to the pubic) and the first Challenger Learning Centre outside North America . We have several programmes that are national in scope, operated in collaboration between the department and the NSC.

Key project staff

Each researcher will be supervised by a member of staff, drawn from the ~40 academic and experienced post-doctoral research SPA staff within the department. It is not possible to provide profiles for all of them here but those of the key staff involved in organising and managing the project are below.

Professor Martin Barstow (Scientist in charge) has a long standing record of X-ray, EUV, UV and optical studies of white dwarf stars, including the numerical modelling of their atmospheres and the development of UV, EUV and X-ray instrumentation for their study. From 1983 to 1990, he was detector scientist on the ROSAT Wide Field Camera for which he received a NASA Group Achievement Award. From 1991 to 1998, Prof Barstow held a prestigious SERC/PPARC Advanced Fellowship and, in 1992, he was Director of the NATO ARW on “White Dwarfs”. Other distinctions include Fellowship of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society and membership of the IAU. During the course of his career, Prof Barstow has published 236 scientific papers or articles, with 130 of these in refereed journals. Prof Barstow is currently UK PI on the NASA J-PEX project has been involved as guest observer on many space missions including: IUE, Einstein, EXOSAT, VOYAGER, EUVE, ASCA, HST, Chandra and FUSE. He is also a regular user of ground-based telescope facilities.

Dr John Remedios (Postgraduate admissions tutor) received his D.Phil. from Oxford University in 1991 for studies of infra-red spectroscopy and remote sounding for the stratosphere. He is particularly experienced in the use of satellite data for atmospheric composition studies of the troposphere and stratosphere. He is well connected to major infra-red satellite teams, including participation in the ESA Expert Laboratory and MIPAS on ENVISAT, collaboration with the MOPITT/EOS-TERRA team, and involvement in key ESA studies of future space instruments for both limb and nadir sounding. He is currently co-ordinator of the EC framework 5 project, MAPSCORE, combining satellite data with an integrated modelling approach for ozone and polar stratospheric clouds. He is a member of the EC GATO and Vintersol liason and planning groups in the ozone area. He is head of the UARS Reference Atmosphere Project and he is also co-chair of COSPAR commission A.1, which focusses on satellite measurements of the troposphere and stratosphere. He has published 28 journal papers.

Dr Neil Arnold (Project Manager) is at the forefront of research into the emerging field of dynamical coupling between the Earth's Solar-Terrestrial environment and its climate system, for which he was awarded a PPARC Advanced Fellowship in 1999. He has expertise in computational atmospheric fluid dynamics, ground-based radar studies of the middle and upper atmosphere and has been actively involved in the highly influential Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite programme. A Fellow of both the Royal Meteorological Society and the Royal Astronomical Society he has published over forty papers, 25 of which have been in peer reviewed journals. He has worked at a variety of institutions, and is currently developing a new generation of three-dimensional models of the middle and upper atmospheres to evaluate new mechanisms for the solar modification of climate. He is also the PI on a proposal to build a micro-satellite to provide additional observational evidence for such linkages. He is co-I on several large RSPP grants and a member of a European Framework 5 Research Training Network to investigate electrodynamic processes in the Earth's atmosphere.

Professor Terry Robinson (Senior postgraduate tutor) is an internationally recognized expert in space plasma physics with a particular interest in the interaction of high power radio waves with the ionosphere. He is the principal investigator for the new SPEAR radar facility that has just been completed on Svalbard and recently gave the prestigious Harold Jeffreys Lecture at the Royal Astronomical Society on his work on the origin of the aurora and the impact of solar activity on climate. Professor Robinson has published more than 120 scientific papers on topics ranging from the micro-dynamics of space plasma to large-scale atmospheric processes. He is a member of the PPARC National Ground-based Facilities Panel and also a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics. He has been Senior Postgraduate Tutor since 2003. He is also the University's Senior Research Moderator overseeing the awarding of University of Leicester Research Degrees at University College Northampton.

Networking with other institutions

A key part of this programme is to encourage the creation of a Europe wide network of institutions collaborating in the training of Early Stage Researchers. In this project, we will promote this goal by the exchange of such researchers for short visits of 3-6 months between institutions. To assess the feasibility of this approach we have already circulated a large number of research groups and obtained expressions of interest in the programme. These are listed in the table below. We note that this is not an exclusive group but indicates the potential scope of the networking. More interested groups may be added later following a wider advertising campaign.

List of potential collaborating institutions




Osservatorio Astrophysica di Catania


G. Bonanno

ENS Lyon


G. Chabrier, I. Baraffe

Tel Aviv University


N. Brosch

IEEC Barcelona


J. Isern

Universitaet Hamburg


J. Schmitt

Universitat Politechnica de Catalunya


E. Garcia-Berro

Universitaet Keil


D. Koester, Wimmer-Schweingruber

Universita' di Padova


G. Piotto

Chalmers Institute of Technology


M. Abramowicz, U. Torkelsson

Universitaet Erlangen-Nurnberg


U. Heber

Universidad Complutense de Madrid


A. Gomez de Castro

Universitaet Tubingen


K. Werner

University of Crete


N. Kylafis, J. Papadakis

Vilnius University


G. Tautvaisiene

Observatoire de Paris, Meudon


C. Boisson, M. Joly

Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma


F. D'Antona

Danish Space Research Institute


T. Neubert

Danish Meteorological Institute


P. Thejll

Sodnakyla Geophysical Observatory


E. Turesen

University of Wuppertal


M. Reise

University of Valencia


J. Sobrino



B. Carli

University of Bremen


J. Burrows

International University Bremen


M. Bruggen



A. Brandenburg

Eindhoven University


H. Kelder

University of Kalrsuhe


H. Fischer

Beligisch Instituut Voor Ruimte-Aeronomie


M. De Maziere

In addition to specific course work available to the researchers we also have a vibrant seminar programme with a range of visiting speakers from within the UK and abroad. Typically, there will be 3 seminars in a week, covering (separately) space, planetary and astrophysics subjects. We operate a large programme of public education and outreach activities, in collaboration with the National Space Centre, based in Leicester , of which the University is a founding partner. We encourage all researchers in the Department to become involved in this programme and regard it as a continuing contribution to encouraging young people to remain engaged with science at school and to promote the development of Science and Society dialogue.


Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher Fellowships have restrictions on who is eligible to receive funding. If you are unsure whether or not you are eligible to apply please email for further advice.

Qualifications : Fellows must be in first 4 years of research activity since gaining a qualification that gives them access to doctoral studies. Applicants must hold, or expect to receive an excellent Bachelor's or Master's Degree in Physics or a related discipline. Researchers with a doctoral degree are not eligible. All applicants will be selected against the following criteria:

  • their scientific skills and relevance of research experience with the research area;
  • their ability to carry out research training activities;
  • their career profile to date and their potential for excellence;
  • the expected impact of the proposed training on their career.

Mobility : Fellows shall not be a UK national, nor shall they have resided in the UK for more than 12 months in the 3 years prior to their appointment. There are some exceptions to this whereby UK nationals may not have been resident in the UK .


Starting salary will be around £21,000 per annum on Grade IB of the scales for Research staff. These posts are available from immediately for a period of three years.

In addition to a salary, all Fellows will receive a travel allowance depending on distance from home country (for distances less than 500 km = €250/ 12 months, for distances 500 – 1000 km = €500/ 12 months etc), and one-off career exploratory allowance of €2000 is available to all Fellows staying over a period of 12 months. Fellows with dependents will also receive an additional allowance of approx €3,600/ year.

The candidate appointed may, immediately upon starting his/her employment, join USS – the Universities' Superannuation Scheme – which involves a personal contribution of 6.35% of salary and a University contribution equal to 14% of salary.

A PDF version of the SPARTAN job advert can be downloaded here.


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