Module Information

Module Identifier
Module Title
Planetary Atmospheres, Ionospheres & Magnetospheres
Academic Year
Semester 1 (Taught over 2 semesters)
Year 2 PSP or Astrophysics
Other Staff

Course Delivery

Delivery Type Delivery length / details
Lecture 32 hours
Seminars / Tutorials 2 x 3-hour Seminars
Other Research essay by students; Poster presentation by students, based on group research and collaboration on a common project
Workload Breakdown Every 10 credits carries a notional student workload of 100 hours: 32 hours Lectures, 6 hours Seminars, 6 hours computational workshops, 30 hours assignment sheets, 1-hour Poster Presentation, 30 hours Poster research and preparation, 95 hours indepedent study


Assessment Type Assessment length / details Proportion
Semester Exam 2 Hours   50%
Semester Assessment 2 Assignment Sheets (2 x 12.5%)  25%
Semester Assessment 1 x Research Essay (8 pages including diagrams)  10%
Semester Assessment 1 x Group Poster Project Presentations  15%
Supplementary Exam 3 Hours   100%

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of this module students should be able to:

1. Describe the regions of the atmospheres of different solar system planets; explain how climate is influenced by orbital motion; show understanding offactors determining the evolution of terrestrial and planetary atmospheres; explain the balance of energy in an atmospheric system. Solve simple problems in radiative transfer; explain the vertical structure of the neutral atmosphere in terms of the underlying physics;
2. Discuss the factors controlling fluid flow above a planetary surface; use a computational modelling suite to derive flow patterns above a planetary surface, display the results using a visualisation system and interpret them in terms of the underlying physics; use the model results to plan the best path for an airborne planetary robot to follow above the terrain for specific experiment targets;
3. Discuss the physical processes governing the production and loss of ionisation including reference to the role of ionospheric and thermospheric chemistry; explain the characteristics of the different ionospheric layers in terms of the variation with height of the production, loss and transport mechanisms;
4. Outline the principles of propagation of radio waves in an ionised medium and from them derive the principles of radio sounding;
5. Discuss the differences in structure between the ionospheres of different planets in the solar system; discuss the different methods of investigating ionospheric structure and critically compare how they might be useful in investigating planetary ionospheres;
6. Discuss the motion of particles in a magnetosphere.and solar-planet coupling processes and their effects on the ionospheres and magnetospheres of different solar system objects; show how different regimes lead to very different planetary magnetospheres

Brief description

This module examines the physics of atmospheres, both neutral and ionised, and the interaction of their upper regions with both the planet's own magnetic field and the interplanetary magnetic field.


  • Introduction to atmospheres. Structure of the Earth's atmosphere. Heating and layer formation.
  • Atmospheric energy balance. "Greenhouse effect". Convection and atmospheric dynamics.
  • Vertical structure. Hydrostatic equilibrium and scale heights. Atmospheric layers.
  • Planetary atmospheres - differences from Earth
  • Atmospheric flow - fluid mechanics as applied to atmospheres
  • Modelling planetary atmospheres - approaches and constraints
  • Interpreting model results for flow over a planetary surface.
  • Regions of ionospheres.
  • Ionisation production and loss mechanisms, Chapman layers. Transport of ionisation and its effects on vertical density structure.
  • Ionospheric chemistry and the physical basis of anticorrelations between electron temperature and density.
  • Ionospheric dynamics and the servo-theory of the F-region.
  • Experimental techniques: Radio wave propagation: plasma frequency, gyrofrequency, phase velocity, group velocity, refractive index. The Appleton-Hartree equation and radio sounding. Scatter radars and trans-ionospheric propagation methods.
  • High-Latitude Ionospheres and Magnetospheres
  • Magnetospheric regions.
  • Magnetic field; dipolar and distorted.
  • Motion of charged particles; gyro, bounce and drift motion.
  • Solar wind-magnetosphere coupling; magnetic reconnection. Plasma convection.
  • Electric currents; Pedersen, Hall, field-aligned. High-latitude ionosphere coupling to Magnetosphere, auroral electrojets, substorms, aurora.

Module Skills

Skills Type Skills details
Application of Number All questions set in tests, example sheets and formal examinations will include numerical problems.
Communication Written communication is developed via the research essay and lecture assignments. Visual communication is developed via the research poster project, and spoken communication via the presentation of the poster (5- minute presentation introducing the poster).
Improving own Learning and Performance ormative assignments are used in order that students might reflect on their progress during the module. The poster presentations will provide an opportunity to compare their work with those of other groups and form an idea of 'best practice'.
Information Technology Students will be required to research topics within the module via the internet. Word processing (or equivalent) skills will be required for the research essay, while use of a presentation package (or equivalent) will be needed for the poster project.
Personal Development and Career planning The module will highlight the latest developments in this field and hence will assist with career development. The poster project, requiring students to work as a team, is of importance in fostering career development.
Problem solving Problem solving is a key skill in physics and will be tested via lecture problem sheets, in the research essay and poster projects and in formal examination at the end of the module.
Research skills A research essay, for which students are required to independently research one of a range of topics covered by the course, forms 15% of the module assessment. Research skills will also be developed.
Subject Specific Skills Use of computational fluid dynamics package for atmospheric modelling.
Team work The poster project is a group assignment, so team work will be developed as students co-operate to research the various areas covered and develop the presentation.


This module is at CQFW Level 6