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 until the 30th August 2021. 

Please contact the relevant staff member to get started.


impacts

Impacts in the early Solar System as insight into the early planetary evolution

This is a Curtin Strategic Project – international student eligible!

The early dynamical evolution of the solar system through to 3.8 billion years ago is relatively well understood. It was a period of intense bombardment of the inner planets. Recent advancements in the early Solar system dynamics and lunar sample analyses speak in favour of the steadily declining impact flux on Pre-Nectarian Moon and Hadean Earth, which indicate that the Earth-Moon system survived a more intense bombardment during this eon than previously thought. These impacts would have had a profound effect on the early Earth and Moon crust and interior evolution. However, there is still lack of terrestrial and lunar cratering record to support this. To understand the evolution of the terrestrial planets, the impact history of large impacts on Mars will be another part of this project. With the most recent discoveries of crust and mantle structure of Mars, thanks to the NASA InSight mission, this project can look into the evolution of Mars via impact bombardment process. This will be combined with remote sensing data and numerical impact modelling, and apply this to interpret the geological record on Earth, Moon and Mars. This way, the early Earth is studied in the context of the early solar system evolution. Datasets from lunar and Mars missions, particularly from NASA InSight, will be applied, to create a bigger picture of origins of terrestrial planets. The proposed research project will employ the Pawsey Centre supercomputing resources and planetary science expertise at SSTC.

Background preferred:
physics, astronomy or statistics, though we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.The suitable applicant should have achieved honours in a relevant undergraduate science or engineering degree and be able to demonstrate experience conducting a successful project. Looking for a candidate interested in planetary sciences and space exploration, and having skills in maths and computing.

Looking into Mars' Past

Unravelling the water history on Mars using impact craters

The Crater Detection Algorithm (CDA) developed within the Space Science and Technology Centre, has allowed the creation of the largest impact crater database ever built on a planetary body. With more than 94 million craters larger than 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. Combined with a statistical tool specifically designed to date semi-automatically the formation age of large impact craters, we are now able to date routinely the age of impacts on the surface of Mars.  

This PhD project will focus on applying this technique to hundreds of craters exhibiting fluidized ejecta blanket whom the morphology attests the presence of volatile material (such as water ice), in the subsurface at the moment of the impact. By analysing the morphological characteristics of this crater population and their formation age, this project will unravel the temporal and spatial evolution of the water layer at a regional and global scale over the last billions years of the planet’s history. Another major expected outcome of this project is to better constrain the evolution of the obliquity of the planet as this parameter is one of the major factors affecting the climate of Mars and therefore the spatial extent of the volatile layer. The results will have strong implications in the landing site selection of future crewed missions.  

 

Background preferred:
Geology, Physics, Computing Science, Planetary Science  

Contact:
Dr Anthony Lagain

RTP project description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5100


shock metamorphism and impact melting

Geology at the extreme: New discoveries in shock metamorphism and impact melting

The impact cratering group in the Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) at Curtin focuses on advancing understanding of the geochemical and microstructural products created during hypervelocity impact events when asteroids impact Earth. This involves the study of shock deformation in major mineral (quartz) and accessory minerals (zircon, monazite), as well as investigation of understudied phases (apatite, xenotime, titanite, others). Our group has a long track record of both finding new impact craters, and also identifying new mineral records of shock deformation. Geochemical investigations include the analysis of impact melt rocks and glasses found as breccias and ejected materials. Studies often focus on a particular site, but can also incorporate global occurrences. Field work is often involved, and largely depends on the sites/materials to be investigated. Materials of interest originate from any impact site or ejecta globally, and in some cases involve analysis of meteorites. Cutting-edge instrumentation used is housed in the John de Laeter Centre at Curin University, and includes scanning electron microscopy (SEM), focused ion beam SEMs (FIB), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD), electron microprobe analysis (EMPA), laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LAICPMS), U-Pb and Ar-Ar geochronology, and other techniques. Our group actively investigates impact related sites and products from Australia and elsewhere.

Background preferred:

A solid background in geoscience is required; strengths in petrology/mineralogy are helpful. Interest in chemistry, physics, and maths is also beneficial. Prior experience with analytical instrumentation (electron-based instruments, laser ablation, SIMS) is desired, but not required, as training will be provided.

Contact:
Dr. Aaron Cavosie

RTP scholarship description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5116


Secrets held by meteorites

Meteorite recovery and investigation

The Desert Fireball Network (DFN), operated by Curtin consists of a large array of astronomical cameras in the outback to recover fresh meteorites with orbits, by observing falls, and then searching for the fall. Searching for meteorite falls in the remote outback is a costly activity, traditionally done with teams of people camped on site, searching the area on foot. Recently SSTC has been developing a drone-based approach, using machine learning to identify meteorites in aerial imagery. This project will continue this development, using the drone in the field, enhancing it as needed, to recover fresh meteorites from the DFN.

Further to this, these recovered meteorites need classification, followed by detailed study, and several meteorites have already been recovered. Fresh unweathered meteorites with orbits are a unique resource, and the study of their formation and chemistry in coordination with modelling of their orbital evolution can provide detailed new insights about the early solar system.

Background preferred:
Engineering, Physics, Software, Earth Science and Geochemistry

Contact:
Dr Martin Towner 

RTP project description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5114


meteorite

Advanced Characterisation of Primitive Organics in Extra-terrestrial materials

Curtin University has recently commissioned a state-of-the-art Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (ToF-SIMS) which has opened up new research possibilities in the geosciences. This analytically focused project is a unique opportunity to study meteoritic material using novel techniques.
ToF-SIMS is an powerful technique in cosmochemistry due to its combination of high spatial resolution and high isotopic sensitivity, enabling the detailed analysis of fine structures within meteoritic material. In this project the ToF-SIMS will be used for detailed analyses of extra-terrestrial materials covering different aspects. (1) Analysis of all newly found meteorites within the Desert Fireball Network (DFN) for organic signatures to provide a complete picture of the organic budget of freshly fallen meteorites. Through connections with the Global fireball network 100s of meteorites will be available, expanding our understanding of the range of organic materials that seeded the solar system. (2) Detailed analysis of carbonaceous chondrites – meteorites that are known to contain a variety of different organic molecules/compounds. Understanding these is crucial to unravelling the evolution of life within and possibly throughout the solar system. Current methods of organic analysis in meteorites involve dissolution of the meteorites. This means that the context is lost. Use of the TOF SIMS provides a framework for these compounds. The main question here is: Are organic materials related to specific minerals? Organic/inorganic relationships in these rocks is at a nascent point and we will exploit this instrument to provide the answers. (3) Research specifically related to organic material in Martian meteorites will help to better understand the history and evolution of Mars. The field of astrobiology is often tied to the analysis of Martian meteorite ALH 84001, which has been studied extensively. Organic materials in other types of rock from Mars will elucidate constraints of the planet’s past atmospheric and geologic environment.

Background preferred:
A background in geology, geochemistry or organic chemistry is desirable.
Familiarity with petrography and mass spectrometry techniques is desirable.

Large scale searches for astronomical transients 

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.

astronomical transients

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.

Background preferred:
Data science, astronomy, physics, planetary science
Contact:
RTP project description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5111

Strengths of meteoroids in the upper atmosphere

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.

Background preferred:
Astronomy, physics, data science, planetary science
Contact:
RTP project description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5112

The rate of impacts on Earth

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.

Background preferred:
Astronomy, physics, statistics, planetary science, data science
Contact:
RTP project description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5113

Debris streams in the inner Solar System

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.

Background preferred:
Data science, astronomy, physics
Contact:
RTP project description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5110

binar cubesat

Projects with the BINAR cubesat program

The Space Science and Technology Centre at Curtin University is building highly capable small spacecraft within its Binar Space Program. Our first spacecraft Binar-1 is launching in Q3 2021, and from 2022 we will be launching multiple spacecraft every year.

​Building More Capable Small Spacecraft Using Low Power Wireless Networking

As we start to build more capable spacecraft with deployable structures including payloads and solar arrays, we would like to explore the additional capability that could be gained from integrating short range low power wireless communications like RFID or 802.15.4 based mesh networks such as Zigbee or Thread into our spacecraft architecture.

This will allow us to create more advanced and better instrumented CubeSat systems, especially deployable systems such as solar panel arrays or larger structures. It will also allow us to explore new ways of building spacecraft: failure tolerant cooperative networks of systems with built-in redundancy instead of a fragile single system vulnerable to failure of one or two critical components.
This project will involve determining appropriate communications technologies for short range (<10 m) links between spacecraft subsystems and possibly other spacecraft performing rendezvous or proximity operations. The work will involve circuit board design and assembly, embedded software development, numerical modelling, regulatory compliance, testing in relevant environments (thermal vacuum chamber, vibration testing, RF testing), flight qualification and hopefully operation on orbit.

This project will present opportunities to build hardware that will fly in space and opportunities to engage with SSTC’s industry partners.

Background preferred:
embedded systems engineering, electronic engineering, software engineering, mechatronics engineering or communications engineering.

Contact:
Dr Robert Howie

RTP Scholarship description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5272


Propulsion Systems for Small Spacecraft

In order to build more capable Earth orbiting satellites and reach our eventual goals of building small interplanetary spacecraft to investigate the formation and evolution of the solar system, we need to develop compact propulsion systems to add this capability to our Binar spacecraft platform.

The existing Binar platform is a compact and highly integrated small spacecraft platform designed for a CubeSat formfactor. In a 1U (10x10x13cm) implementation the platform only occupies about 30% of the spacecraft leaving around 70% of the volume free for payload. In the last decade launch costs have fallen dramatically, but the cost of spacecraft is still a barrier to many prospective space operators. Binar is breaking down these barriers by leveraging commodity electronics manufacturing techniques for much of the assembly and integration of the systems resulting in a highly capable, compact and cost-effective spacecraft platform. SSTC wishes to develop new propulsion systems for small spacecraft with a similar philosophy.

The aim of this project is to develop new propulsion systems for small spacecraft with a focus on producing highly compact systems using cost effective manufacturing techniques inspired by the latest miniaturisation approaches in other industries. The project will involve engine design, modelling, fabrication, assembly, ground testing and developing a pathway to flight.

This project will present opportunities to build hardware that will fly in space and opportunities to engage with SSTC’s industry partners.

Background preferred:
mechanical, mechatronics engineering, materials science or physics.

Contact:
Prof. Phil Bland

RTP Scholarship description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5107


​Re-entry Systems for Small Spacecraft

The existing Binar platform is a compact and highly integrated small spacecraft platform designed for a CubeSat form factor. In a 1U (10x10x13cm) implementation the platform only occupies about 30% of the spacecraft leaving around 70% of the volume free for payload. In the last decade launch costs have fallen dramatically, but the cost of spacecraft is still a barrier to many prospective space operators. Binar is breaking down these barriers by leveraging commodity electronics manufacturing techniques for much of the assembly and integration of the systems resulting in a highly capable, compact and cost-effective spacecraft platform.

As a research group driven to explore the formation and evolution of the solar system, SSTC’s long term plan includes sample return missions from small bodies near to the Earth-Moon system. One of the most important parts of any sample return mission is the entry, descent and landing system to protect the sample during atmospheric entry and allow it to be located and recovered after landing.

The aim of this project is build upon some existing work to further develop new miniaturised entry, descent and landing (EDL) systems as a critical step on the path to future sample return missions. The systems must protect the sample from the heat of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds, slow the return capsule down for landing and allow the capsule to be located after landing. This project will involve hypersonic, mechanical design, electronics design, simulation and testing. There is scope to focus this project on the areas of the problem that the applicant is most suited to such as thermal protection systems or recovery systems.

This project will present opportunities to build hardware that will fly in space and opportunities to engage with SSTC’s industry partners.

Background preferred:
mechanical engineering, mechatronics engineering, electronics engineering, RF, physics or materials science

Contact:
Prof. Phil Bland

RTP Scholarship description:
https://scholarships.curtin.edu.au/Scholarship/?id=5106