29 November 2007

ACSE student has unique role in mission to Venus

Photo: Simon Pope

A PhD student in the Space Systems Group within the University of Sheffield´s top-rated Department of Automatic Systems and Control Engineering has played a unique role in Venus Express, the current European Space Agency mission to Venus.

As part of the mission, research student Simon Pope has been working on his area of investigation – a magnetometer experiment carried by the spacecraft, since the second year of his postgraduate studies.

Venus Express was launched in 2005 and successfully reached Venusian orbit in 2006. During its first year in orbit exciting phenomena have been discovered and investigated using the data returned from the spacecraft.

These results, published in the scientific journal Nature (29 November 2007), include previously unknown information about how the fast plasma flow emitted by the Sun interacts with an unmagnetised planet – details which can only be understood because of the high quality of magnetometer instrument on board.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Simon´s contribution to the instrument used was to develop techniques to separate natural magnetic fields from spacecraft generated interference. According to Professor Michael Balikhin of the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, who has participated in the mission since its earliest phases, Simon´s work has resulted in a unique accolade. He said: "For his contribution to the Venus Mission, Simon has been given the status of full Co-Investigator for the magnetometer instrument. He is the only UK student who has this status in Venus Express. During my involvement with numerous space missions, starting with VEGA, I have never known a student to be given this status. It´s a real tribute!"

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Professor Balikhin continued: "Venus has been probed many times in the early phases of planetary exploration, however focus has shifted to other planets in recent years. Significant advances in instrumentation now allow the Venusian environment to be investigated in greater detail than has been previously possible."

Simon added: "For a PhD student to be involved with such a unique problem is a fantastic opportunity. The systems based approach I have learnt from Professors Billings and Banks in the Department of Automatic Systems and Control Engineering have been crucial to my success. The results obtained from Venus Express show that Venus has many interesting and exciting phenomena that have still to be studied."

The team believe there are many more intriguing areas for study. Together with colleagues from Austria, Israel and Finland, the Sheffield scientists are soon to report on the discovery of a new type of `collisionless shock´ observed by Venus Express. `Collisionless shocks´ are present in the vicinity of many astrophysical objects, such as supernova remnants, space jets, stars and planets emmersed in the supersonic flow of star winds.

They are the most powerful cosmic ray accelerators and are responsible for the emission of powerful gamma-ray bursts. In spite of their abundance in the Universe the only place where we can make in-situ studies is our solar system. The discovery of this new type of shock is extremely important to the fundamental physics of collisionless shocks in the Universe.

Notes for Editors: Venus Express continues to send high quality data from Venus and promises to lead to many more interesting discoveries. Further details about Venus Express are published online in the journal Nature.