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Postgraduate research project

Investigation of the potential of using magnetic reconnection as the method of acceleration within spacecraft propulsion

Fully funded (UK only)
Type of degree
Doctor of Philosophy
Entry requirements
2:1 honours degree View full entry requirements
Faculty graduate school
Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Closing date

About the project

This PhD project will aim to investigate the potential of using magnetic reconnection within a plasma propulsion thruster for spacecraft, and exciting and novel topic within the field.

Some of the most energetic ejection of plasma observed in the universe draw their energy from magnetic fields. Solar flares, coronal mass ejections and galactic jets all acquire their energy from magnetic reconnection. Magnetic reconnection is a mechanism by which opposing magnetic field lines may break and reconnect converting their stored energy into acceleration of the plasma.

Although most commonly found at astrophysical scales, magnetic reconnection has been studied on terrestrial scales in laboratory astrophysics experiments.

Based on the conversion of magnetic to kinetic energy the ejected plasma is expected to be travelling at huge speeds, an order of magnitude greater velocity than existing spacecraft ion thrusters can achieve, sufficient enough to potentially increase the distances spacecraft go, and leading to the ability to much more efficiently explore the Solar system.

It is only very recently however that magnetic reconnection’s potential for use in spacecraft propulsion has been identified, and analysis begun. A few different approaches to harnessing reconnection have been developed, predominantly taking inspiration from either astrophysical sources or configurations associated with fusion research. To date, most work covering this area has been done via simulations.

You'll investigate using magnetic reconnection as the propellant acceleration mechanism within a spacecraft ion thruster.

You'll be doing simulations of magnetic reconnection using adapted codes available from astrophysics based simulations, the design of ion thrusters that can potential use magnetic reconnection, and the testing of designed ion thrusters within the David Fearn Lab at the University of Southampton.

The work will be completed within the Space Propulsion Group at the University of Southampton, consisting of seven PhD students and several Research Assistants working within the area of space propulsion.

The work will build upon initial work demonstrating the feasibility of the approach, presented at the AIAA Scitech conference 2023. It is an exciting opportunity to investigate a very novel propulsion system for spacecraft that could enable future far field exploration of the Solar system.

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