PhD Studentship in Cosmic dust as a feedstock for prebiotic chemistry on Mars and exoplanets

Uncovering the processes that led to the origin of life on Earth, and are required for life to emerge elsewhere in the galaxy, remains one of the outstanding questions in science.  What is clear is that for ‘geo-‘chemistry to transform into ‘bio-‘chemistry requires a planetary environment with a rich feedstock of simple molecular components.  In many respects the modern Earth is hostile environment for likely origin of life chemistry.  However, in Earth’s deep past, and potentially in the deep past of many rocky planets, their surfaces may have been fertilized with the debris left over from planet formation.

Cosmic dust is the smallest size fraction of this debris from planet formation. Yet this material is rich in elements considered essential for prebiotic chemistry, including reduced forms of C, N, P, S, and various metals (Graaf and Schwartz, 2000; Mehta et al., 2018; Todd and Öberg, 2020). Our group has recently found that cosmic dust accreted to early Earth may have formed sedimentary deposits 1000 times richer in prebiotic feedstocks compared with modern sediments.

This project will build on this result by combining planetary dynamics with the physics of atmospheric entry and surface process to quantify the contribution of cosmic dust to prebiotic chemistry on habitable worlds.

This project aims to

1) quantify how cosmic dust fertilizes planetary surfaces;

2) predict the distribution of cosmic-dust-rich sediments on Mars; and

3) extend these results to exoplanets, estimating the fraction of young systems with enough dust-forming debris to feed prebiotic chemistry.

What the student will do:

1) Perform dynamical calculations of cosmic dust formation and distribution in the solar system, and in exoplanetary systems.

2) calculate the fate of cosmic dust during atmospheric entry and redistribution on planets

3) model the incorporation of cosmic dust into aqueous systems on planetary surfaces.

This project would suit a student who:

Has a strong multi-disciplinary interest in planetary dynamics, and planetary surface processes, from the solar system to exoplanets, and with an interest in theory.

Fixed-term: The funds for this post are available for 4 years in the first instance.

If you have any questions about this studentship please contact Dr Oli Shortle, os258@cam.ac.uk.

Please quote reference LB36057 on your application and in any correspondence about this vacancy.

The University actively supports equality, diversity and inclusion and encourages applications from all sections of society.

The University has a responsibility to ensure that all employees are eligible to live and work in the UK.

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