Asteroid Collisions, a dynamical insight PhD

Cranfield University

PhD 3 years Cranfield, UK

Uploaded 6 Apr 2021

Job Description

Applications are invited for a fully-funded 3 years PhD studentship in Space Engineering, at Cranfield University, in the field of Orbital Dynamics. The project will aim at finding evidence of past collisions between small to medium-sized asteroids (<100 km), with a completely novel approach, based on orbital observation of data retrieved from in ESA's Neo Coordination Centre database.

Asteroid impacts, whose outcomes range from small-scale cratering events to catastrophic target break-up, have played a crucial role in the evolution of the asteroid belt and of the solar system as a whole. The asteroid belt is believed to be grinding down through collisions. Light-curves and images of the small bodies of our solar system show that these bodies can have very irregular shapes and heavily cratered surfaces, indicating a quite intense collisional activity [2]. Witnesses of these collisional events are, for instance, the ~20 asteroid families in the main belt, each now recognised to be the outcome of the disruption of a larger asteroid due to an impact with another small asteroid.

Studies on colliding main-belters show a wide distribution of velocities, with a mean (for diameters >50 km) of about 4.4 km/s and an estimated collision rate of the order of about 3 x 10^(-18) (R)^2 ~ yr^(-1), R being the assumed target radius. With such average impact speed, five times faster than a rifle bullet, an asteroid collision is certainly an amazing event to watch. Surprisingly, only a few impacts between asteroids have ever been observed so far, mainly by the observation of a plume of dust ejection in a particular direction.

Many more records of these long-sought collisions might be already out there, unnoticed in the bulky collection of orbits contained in ESA's NEOCC database (DB), accounting for more than 850,000 asteroids. This project aims at finding them.

The project is shared with ESA Neo Coordination Centre and funded by Cranfield University and  ESA’s OSIP campaign.

This study will provide a novel, systematic approach to the analysis of close approaches and impacts among small to medium size. main belters.

The successful PhD candidate will be based at Cranfield University but will work in close contact with the Space Safety Programme Planetary Defence Team at ESA ESRIN (Rome).

Upon successful completion of the PhD, the candidate will be able to carry out research activities independently as well as in collaboration with other researchers. The candidate will build a strong background in orbital dynamics and mastery in dealing with wide databases that can be employed in a wide range of applications and sectors.

Person Specification

Applicants should have a first or second class UK honours degree or equivalent in Engineering, Mathematics or a related discipline. An aerospace background, showing experience in computational aerodynamics, programming and optimisation, would be preferred.


To be eligible for this funding, applicants must be EU or UK national. We require that applicants are under no restrictions regarding how long they can stay in the UK