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We have a new PhD opportunity open for applications: 

Microbial survival in martian brines: implications for planetary protection

Planetary Protection aims to ensure that scientific investigations of possible extra-terrestrial life forms, precursors, and remnants are not jeopardised (COSPAR 2020). This is reflected in the Committee on Space Research’s (COSPAR) Planetary Protection Policy, which offers international guidelines. The Policy is non-binding and evolves with our scientific understanding of terrestrial life and extra-terrestrial environments.

For Mars, a recent paper (Olsson-Francis, 2022) identified a series of knowledge gaps relating to the Policy. A key area is the feasibility of terrestrial contamination to survive and proliferate on Mars. This is prudent, as our understanding of water distribution on Mars is evolving rapidly.

Based on large-scale climate models, Mars is deemed to be dry and highly desiccating; however, indirect evidence suggests transient water exists in the equatorial regions of Mars. For example, humidity, air and ground temperatures suggest that brines can exist in the uppermost 5 cm of the subsurface (Martin-Torres et al., 2015). Moreover, some salts, such as sulfate, perchlorate and chloride, found within the martian regolith can form stable hydrated compounds and liquid solutions by absorbing atmospheric water vapour (Ramachandran et al., 2021).

To examine the feasibility of microbial contamination to survive and replicate on the surface of Mars, laboratory-controlled simulations are required to mimic the physicochemical environments. Using these simulation experiments, the studentship will investigate the ability of transient martian brines to support microorganisms isolated from cleanroom environments to survive and proliferate on the martian surface.

This work will contribute to ongoing international activities in planetary protection by developing our understanding of the habitability of Mars. This will be key for developing the planetary protection guidelines for future missions.

You will need to submit:

  • A CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three and who can comment on your academic abilities)
  • An Open University application form, downloadable from: Home OU application form (if you are resident in the UK) or an Overseas OU application form (if you are an international applicant). In Section 14 of the Open University application form, please insert the title of the project to which you have applied. In Section 15 of the Open University application form please tick "yes"

For more details visit the EEES website: OU12


Applications must be sent to by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024



Development and validation of innovative, near real-time analytical tools to enable mitigation of contamination within cleanrooms of the UK spacecraft & satellite industry

Project Highlights:

  • Opportunity to develop expertise in cutting edge volatile organic compound detection and analysis for contamination detection.
  • Opportunity to develop skills in analytical techniques, contamination control, and materials and process (M&P) protocols within the space sector.
  • This industrial CASE studentship is a collaboration between The Open University (OU) and Airbus Defence and Space Ltd (Airbus DS) providing both academic and industrial research experience.


The STFC Industrial CASE (Cooperative Awards in Science and Technology) studentship provides a 3.5-year stipend that allows the student to spend periods of time on placement at Airbus DS in Stevenage, UK. The cumulative placement period will be no less than 9 months but this will be spread over the period of the studentship and will not normally exceed 18 months.

Protecting the space environment is a critical 21st century challenge to ensure the space sector remains environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. For those that manufacture space and satellite equipment, contamination resulting from surfaces, people and materials is a particular problem that is poorly understood but could have serious adverse impacts on extra-terrestrial environments. 

Many materials used in the manufacture of spacecraft, particularly those used for bonding, are silicone-based. This is because they are easy to use, work well in a large range of temperatures, have good adhesion and are UV and ozone resistant.  Certain silicones emit low levels of volatile gases. However, in the space environment, there are both thermal and vacuum effects that increase outgassing of certain compounds that can settle on sensitive equipment causing parts, such as lenses, to become contaminated and image quality to be reduced. If they are deposited on equipment that lands on a celestial body, this could contaminate other natural environments, including those that might be habitable.  

This studentship builds on a successful Open University/Airbus DS STFC Impact Accelerator Account project (scheme can be found online) and will apply a novel approach to volatile analysis within space sector cleanrooms.

The aims of this studentship are:

  1. To identify, profile and catalogue volatile, semi-volatile and surface organic compounds in cleanrooms and understand the influence of VOCs on bonding, and cleaning methodologies.
  2. To develop techniques, in partnership with the Airbus technical team, to help identify individual contamination compounds, and assess risk of silicone contamination vs cure.
  3. To develop analytical strategies to then deal with real time contamination events.
  4. To develop and optimise analytical methods for flight hardware, cleanroom surfaces and air

Applications should include:


For more details visit the OU Vacancies Page

Applications should be sent to  by 12pm (noon) on 29th January 2024



The projects below have been previously open for applications:


These CENTA funded PhD were being offered in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences:

OU3 - Tracing the dispersal of extremophiles within geothermal aerosols in Iceland  

OU11 - Carbon monoxide-fuelled life in saline environments  

OU12 - After the dust has settled: The post-impact hydrothermal system at Rochechouart impact crater and implications for Early Earth


This OU funded PhD was being offered in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences:

OU 15 - A deep dive into biogeochemical cycling in Icelandic Hot Springs


These OU funded PhD were being offered in the School of Physical Sciences:

PS2: From Warm and Wet to Cold and Dry on Mars: Ancient Environments as Seen from a Rover Perspective

PS9: Signatures of organic-salt-ice interactions in the plumes of Enceladus and other icy moons 


This OU funded PhD was being offered in the Law School

LAW02 - Whose Commons is it Anyway? Environmental Authority and the Development of Space Law 


This UKSA funded PhD was being offered in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences:

OU22 ­– How to Find Life on Mars: Investigating biological potential and putative biosignature formation