Active surface processes on Mars

A dust devil on Mars ©NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The PhD project will use sub-pixel image correlation to identify and quantify a range of active surface processes on Mars, to help to understand the Martian atmosphere and climate.

This project is funded for three and a half years as an STFC studentship.

Apply for this project

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to

Application deadline: Friday 25 August 2017.


The ESA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and NASA InSight missions are both focused on detecting and monitoring active surface processes on Mars. Although these missions have different overall goals, they both demonstrate that understanding the present is key to understanding the past.

This study will use sub-pixel image correlation to identify and quantify a range of active surface processes on Mars that not only complement the above missions, but also help inform future missions and studies of habitability on Mars. The student will participate in the ExoMars TGO mission through two supervisors recently being appointed Guest Investigators. 


For the first time we now have the data and methods sufficient to identify and monitor active surface processes on Mars. Since the arrival of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2005, near global coverage of unprecedented resolution has been achieved. With the advent of sub-metre resolution at Mars, even small-scale surface changes can be identified using methods that were previously only possible in studies of active surface processes on Earth.

Using a method of automatic and precise orthorectification, co-registration, and sub-pixel correlation of orbital images, the software package 'Co-registration of Optically Sensed Images and Correlation' (COSI-Corr) can detect surface displacements of between ~1/20 to 1/50 of a pixel [Leprince et al., 2007] and has been validated for use with different feature types, including terrestrial glaciers [Herman et al., 2011] and earthquakes [Hollingsworth et al., 2012], as well as dune and ripple migration on Earth [Vermeesch and Leprince, 2012]. Recent studies have demonstrated the application of the COSI-Corr method to quantify ripple migration rates on Mars [e.g. Bridges et al., 2012; Ayoub et al., 2014].

Examples of the successful application of sub-pixel correlation and change detection with COSI-Corr to quantify active surface processes on Earth identical to those for study in this proposal. (a) Epipolar displacement field for the central section of the Krafla fissure swarm with a 14 year time gap [Hollingsworth et al., 2012]. (b) Velocity of mountain glaciers in the Southern Alps, New Zealand, over a 16 day period [Herman et al., 2011]. (c) Individually tracked image pixels of sand dunes in the central Bodélé Depression, Chad, over a 26 year time period [Vermeesch and Leprince, 2012].

This project will apply this method to features on Mars from a range of different image sensors, including new images from the CaSSIS instrument on the ExoMars TGO mission. The distribution and activity of these processes will each provide different insights into the atmospheric and climatic processes in the present-day, and ultimately throughout Mars’ history.

The objectives of this project are to understand the Martian atmosphere and climate through active surface processes, specifically:

  • Use active dune and ripple migration to quantify wind velocities and sand fluxes in order to determine their seasonal dependence and geographic distribution.
  • Use active dust devil activity to determine their velocity, seasonal dependence, diurnal activity and geographic distribution in order to estimate their dust-lifting capacity.
  • Study glacial features to identify active ice-related processes at high- and mid-latitudes in order to understand the processes operating and their climate-driven control.


This project is funded for three and a half years as an STFC studentship, which will cover all fees and a student stipend if you are from the UK, or from the EU and meet residency requirements (settled status, or 3 years full-time residency in the UK). For full details on what is covered by the studentship please see the STFC guidance.

For informal enquiries or further information, please contact Dr Peter Grindrod.

How to apply

Deadline: Friday 25 August 2017.

Please send the following documents to the Postgraduate Office at

  • Curriculum vitae
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD project, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans.
  • Transcripts of undergraduate and master's degree results.
  • Two academic references including (if applicable) master's project supervisor.

Interview date: September 2017 at The Natural History Museum

Start date: 1 October 2017 or as soon as possible thereafter

Further Information

For informal enquiries or further information, please contact Dr Peter Grindrod.


The Natural History Museum

Dr Peter Grindrod

Open University

Dr Matt Balme

University College London

Dr Pieter Vermeesch

Funded by 

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