Current PhD Projects
Consider applying for a PhD position at the School of Earth and Planetary Science at Curtin University, and join a diverse team of earth and planetary scientists in the Space Science and Technology Centre that is looking to expand with new PhDs.
We have multiple projects in the field of planetary science, for students with backgrounds in astronomy, data science, geology, engineering, computer science, physics, maths. Dedicated projects using the large scale observational facilities are outlined below. If you would like to work with us, and your ideal project is not described below, please still enquire now to start an incredible science journey.
Merit based RTP scholarships will be available again in 2021.
Investigation of the Australian crater record
Interested in a PhD where you’ll investigate how impact craters formed in Australia? Do you have a background in geophysics, geology, physics or astrophysics and would like to learn more about numerical modelling and big data analysis?
This work is part of the project called Macro to Micro (M2M) crater reconstruction. M2M is a new paradigm that is used for exploring buried and/or exposed terrestrial meteorite impact structures. We are interested in learning new insights about impact conditions at known craters, finding evidence to confirm suspected impact structures, and exploring economic potential of impact structures. The Macro component of M2M combines field work at impact sites around the globe with numerical impact modelling using the shock physics hydrodynamic code iSALE to simulate the impact cratering process combined with geophysical survey data. The Micro component of M2M involves analysis of shocked rocks and minerals collected during field work at impact craters, as well as available drill core samples to understand the shock history of rocks and minerals. Our M2M methodology is the first modern approach of merging micro- and macro-scale analysis to determine morphology, age, and erosion level of known craters. Recent advances made by our team include confirmation of the newest impact crater in Australia, the ~14 km diameter Yallalie structure located north of Perth, the discovery of the first high-pressure phase (reidite) reported from an Australian impact crater (Woodleigh), and using electron backscatter diffraction to ‘unlock’ crystallographic evidence of high-pressure phase transformations recorded in granular zircon from impact melt rocks.
Geophysics, geology, physics, astrophysics
Secrets held by meteorites
The Solar System we have today is the product of a complex processing history that began with the collapse of a Giant Molecular cloud to form our Sun. Due to the rotation of the cloud produced by the conservation of angular momentum the cloud collapsed into a disk shaped structure called a proto-planetary disk. It was during this phase of the evolution of the solar systems that a series of complex processes transformed the condensate material, dust and gas into the first solids. These solids later coalesced into the asteroids, comets, moons and planets.
One of the mysteries regarding early planetary accretion is the method of compaction. Models featured in the work of Bland et al., 2011 demonstrate that primordial solids would have been highly porous, on the order of >70%. When considering that even the most pristine and primitive meteorite samples recovered have comparatively low porosities, we infer that large-scale processes must have been driving the compaction of these parent bodies. Mechanisms such as lithostatic pressure have been disregarded entirely due to the modelled sizes of primitive parent bodies lacking sufficient gravitational intensity to collapse pore spaces. It is possible that the evidence to confirm and/or constrain these models may be recorded within the rocks as sub-micron features within the fabrics of primitive meteorites (chondrites) (Forman et al., 2016).
The aim of this research is to characterise and measure, using high resolution µComputed Tomography (CT) methods, a range of different primitive meteorite types. The objective is to identify the distributions and geometries of sub-micron components/features to map the distribution and form that porosity takes in these samples. Preliminary work has shown that this type of analysis provides constraints on the:
- Timing of early Solar System processing events
- Compaction/Accretional processes of primitive planetesimals
- Early Solar System thermal evolution
- Early Solar System shock history
Geology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physics
Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing
Mars Analogue Remote Sensing
The exploration of Mars has been practically continuous since the 1970s when the Viking missions landed and orbited the planet sending back amazing images of this other world. The highest resolution global image dataset currently available for Mars is 5m/pixel. Higher resolution on a global scale is difficult due to transmission rates from Mars to Earth. Future missions are exploring the use of drones to explore the Martian surface. An area of interest for the Mars Research Group at Curtin University is the development and testing of drone spectrometers. The ideal analogue area for this testing is Antarctica.
The aim of this project is to test the use of a drone-flown spectrometer at near Mars environmental conditions and calibrate a library of spectra using Antarctica as groundtruth.
Physics, Computing Science, Geophysics, Astronomy
Machine Learning in Planetary Science
Mars Analogue Remote Communications
An area of interest in planetary science is the communication pipeline between a spacecraft orbiting another planetary body and Earth. Datasets are being gathered at Mars right now, but the transmission of this data to Earth is seriously hampered by the speed of the signal between the two bodies. Using the experience of the remote operations of the Desert Fireball Network along with recent advances in Machine Learning as applied to Planetary datasets, the time is right to explore options for improving remote communications.
In this project, the student will explore, in collaboration with industry, potential ways to increase transmission speeds between remote areas, using Antarctica as a Mars analogues location. A second aim of this project is to build up machine learning algorithms that can be included on spacecraft that will be able to pre-process image data sets in order to conserve data sizes, but still deliver high resolution science.
Physics, Computing Science, Geophysics, Astronomy
The current impact cratering flux on Mars
The discovery of numerous new impact craters on the surface of Mars has allowed us to refine the current flux of material hitting the surface. The precise dating of these impact events is typically performed by the manual comparison between images taken at different times. This technique is tedious and spatially limited to dusty areas on the red planet.
The Crater Detection Algorithm (CDA) developed within the SSTC group, here at Curtin, allows the automatic identification of craters down to 1 m diameter when applied on the highest resolution imagery dataset (25cm/pixel). This PhD project will focus on using and improving the CDA, including building a pipeline for the automatic analysis of all high-resolution images currently available. This will allow the student to detect new impact craters over the entire surface of the planet. These detection will not only redefine the current impact and cratering rate on Mars but also contribute to the search of the potential source of seismic events detected by SEIS, the seismometer on board of the InSIGHT lander.
Data Science, Computer Science, Physics, Planetary Science
Looking into Mars’ Past
The Crater Detection Algorithm (CDA) developed within the SSTC group, has created the largest impact crater database ever on a planetary body. With more than 94 million craters over 50 m in diameter, we are now able to use this unique resource to investigate the spatial crater distribution and therefore the age of geological events having shaped the surface of Mars at an unmatched spatial and temporal resolution.
This PhD project will focus on the statistical analysis of the size distribution of impact craters constellating the surface of Mars in order to refine the geological unit boundaries and therefore the spatial and temporal extension of geological processes. This refinement will allow the student in particular to look at the temporal distribution of catastrophic floods occurring in the past in order to better constrain the aqueous history of the red planet.
Planetary Science, Earth Science, Spatial Science, Maths
Projects using SSTC large scale observational facilities
SSTC has pioneered the development of large networked facilities using hardened autonomous observatories. The Desert Fireball Network (DFN) has 50 autonomous stations across Australia. It has been observing ~2.5 million km2 of Australian skies since 2015. It provides a spatial context for meteorites – we can track a rock back to where it originated in the solar system, and forward to where it lands, for recovery by a field party. The database of >1400 meteoroid orbits is larger than the combined literature dataset for >70 years of observation, providing a unique window into the distribution of debris in the inner solar system. With 14 international partners, and facilitated by NASA, the project has recently expanded to a global facility. The Global Fireball Observatory (GFO) will cover x5 the observing area of the DFN, able to track debris entering our atmosphere 24 hours a day. These networks informed the development of a satellite tracking network – FireOPAL – with Lockheed Martin. Although designed for satellite observations, FireOPAL also happens to be a world-class astronomical transient observatory. The DFN, GFO, and FireOPAL are helping us answer fundamental questions in planetary science and astronomy. If you would like to be part of this team, and work with colleagues in universities around the world, at NASA, and in industry, read on.
Large scale searches for astronomical transients
Whether looking for meteorite or tracking satellites, the Desert Fireball Network continuously scans large areas of the night sky, compiling a unique archive of the entire visible sky at an unmatched cadence.
At any point the DFN is probing 20,000° of sky down to vmag=8 (30 second cadence), and 2,500° down to vmag= 15 (10 second cadence). This opens up a new area in time-domain astronomy, and allows detection of the fastest optical transient phenomena.
This PhD project will focus on the development of a data pipeline that will open up these facilities for astronomical research, and then an exploration of those new research possibilities. In building the software that will identify non-local astronomical anomalies (supernovae, flaring stars, gravitational waves counterparts, exoplanets) the student will: have access to all of the DFN output; the ability to test computational approaches on a lab-based system and upload new iterations of software remotely to deployed observatories; and the full 6-year dataset from the entire network (~2000TB) stored at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.
Data science, astronomy
Strengths of meteoroids in the upper atmosphere
Recent space missions to asteroids have gathered detailed information not just on the composition of these bodies, but also on their material properties – e.g. their strength, and whether they are a rubble pile or a single monolithic rock. But we know very little about the strength of small objects in the metre to 10s meter class. This project will look at the breakup of meteoroids in our atmosphere to calculate the bulk strengths of these objects. It will also look at the origins of this material to determine if there is a correlation between strengths and any specific orbits or regions of the Solar System, or specific asteroids and their families. The results will inform our understanding of the asteroid hazard (do small objects all generate airburst ‘Tunguska-like’ explosions), the lifetime of debris in the inner Solar System, and how we date the ages of planetary surfaces.
This specific project may be more suited to a background in astronomy or physics, though we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.
The rate of impacts on Earth
How much material is bombarding the Earth on a daily basis? The dataset is well constrained for large (>10s m sized) objects, as well as the small, dusty material, but the cm-m size range is poorly known. The DFN dataset contains the largest and most complete record of the flux, size distribution, and orbits of material intersecting out planet. This project will use the DFN’s orbital database to answer the fundamental question: how often do we get impacted? This will place a critical constrain on the impact hazard (there is an order-of-magnitude variation in estimates of Tunguska-class impactors). These data can also be used to model the flux of material into the inner solar system in general. How much material might be expected on the Moon, or even Mars?
This specific project may be more suited to a background in astronomy, physics or statistics, though we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.
Astronomy, physics, statistics
Debris streams in the inner Solar System
Meteor showers are typically associated with smaller, cometary material. Despite the DFN being tuned to brighter fireball events, we do observed events with meteor showers arising from known cometary parent bodies. Asteroid Bennu was recently visited by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, where material was seen being spun off the surface. This project will investigate if there are any objects in the DFN data that could have originated from such a body and assess the likelihood of asteroid streams. For showers known for having larger material, is this an indication of different production mechanisms possibly associated with asteroid break up or spin-off debris rather than from a comet?
This specific project may be more suited to a background in physics, astronomy or statistics, though we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.
Data science, astronomy