Professor Emma Bunce

Head of School, Physics and Astronomy

Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics

Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award holder

MPhys. (Hons), PhD (Leicester)
Prof Emma Bunce
Credit Andrew Fox for The Telegraph

Tel: +44 (0)116 252 3541


Office: Room F70, Physics and Astronomy

Personal details

MPhys. (Hons), PhD

I grew up in Worthing where and attended Davison C of E High School for Girls between 1988 and 1992, and Worthing VIth Form College between 1992 and 1994. Following my A-levels I studied for a Masters degree in Physics with Space Science and Technology at the University of Leicester from 1994 to 1998.

Following the successful completion of my four-year degree, I obtained a PhD place and began studying the magnetosphere of Jupiter under the excellent supervision and guidance of Professor Stan Cowley. I was awarded my PhD in 2001 for my thesis entitled “Large-scale current systems in the Jovian Magnetosphere”. In 2003 I was awarded a PPARC Post-doctoral Fellowship to study Saturn’s magnetosphere, I was then appointed to the Department’s lecturing staff in 2005, and have enjoyed teaching undergraduates ever since. In 2009 I was promoted to Reader, and in 2013 I was promoted to Professor. To date, I have published ~120 papers in the scientific literature and my work has received national and international recognition. I won the Royal Astronomical Society’s prize for best PhD thesis (2002), the Prix Baron Nicolet award for Space Physics (2003), the European Geophysical Union’s Young Talents in Geoscience award (2005). I gave the RAS Sir Harold Jeffrey’s Lecture in 2009, and was awarded a Philip Leverhulme prize for “Astronomy and Astrophysics” in 2011. In 2018 I won the Royal Astronomical Society's Chapman Medal. I regularly give public talks on "solar system" topics such as "The Cassini Mission to Saturn", "Oceans, Ices, and Fire: The Mysterious Moons of Jupiter", and "Auroral Processes at the Outer Planets".


In the 2019/20 academic year I delivered the following modules:

  • 3rd Year Research Project supervisor (PA 3900)
  • 4th Year Specialist Research Project supervisor (PA4900)
  • 4th Year Literature Review Project supervisor (PA4440)

Science communication

I regularly give public talks on "solar system" topics such as "The Cassini Mission to Saturn", "Oceans, Ices, and Fire: The Mysterious Moons of Jupiter", and "Auroral Processes at the Outer Planets".

Professional activities

2020-         President of the Royal Astronomical Society

2014-         Appointed as the University's Trustee for the National Space Centre

2019-2020 President-elect of the Royal Astronomical Society

2016-2019 Member of the University of Leicester Promotions Committee

2016-2019 Member of the Royal Society URF Ai Panel

2014-2015 STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellowship Selection Committee

2012-2013 RAS Fellowship Selection Committee

2010-2012 Member of the College of Science and Engineering Research and Enterprise Committee

2009-2012 Deputy Lead Scientist & Member of ESA Study Science Team for Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter

2009-2011  Member of the Near Universe Advisory Panel, Science and Technology Facilities Council

2009-2012 Elected to the Royal Astronomical Society Council

2007-2012 Associate Editor, Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics

2007-2009 Astronomy Grants Panel member, Science and Technology Facilities Council

2004-2009 Member of the Royal Astronomical Society Library Committee


My main research interests have focused on the giant rotating magnetospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, with a particular desire to explore and understand the mechanisms which generate the dynamic auroral emissions in their upper atmospheres.  For example, at Jupiter magnetospheric dynamics are mainly dominated by the combination of rapid planetary rotation and the outflow of material originating from the volcanic moon Io, orbiting deep within the magnetospheric cavity.  The main auroral oval in Jupiter’s polar ionosphere appears fixed with respect to the planet, an indication of planetary control, and is now understood to be associated with large-scale magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling, and the transfer of angular momentum from the ionosphere to the middle magnetosphere plasma (Bunce and Cowley, 2001; Cowley and Bunce, 2001). In addition, Jupiter’s polar auroral emissions, which include all auroral emission lying poleward of the main auroral oval, are ordered by magnetic local time, indicating potential external control by the solar wind (Bunce et al., 2004).  At lowest latitudes the magnetic footprints of the moons Io, Europa and Ganymede produce auroral spots and trails which provide specific information on the mass outflow rate, and the local slowing of the flow of magnetospheric plasma in the vicinity of the satellites.

Saturn’s magnetosphere is also rapidly rotating, and plasma is produced through sputtering from the icy moons and by micro-meteorite impact with the ring grains.  However, despite these similarities with the jovian system, related work by Cowley and Bunce (2003) and Cowley, Bunce, and Prangé (2004a) suggested that the main auroral oval at Saturn is not produced by the effects of sub-corotation of equatorial plasma.  Instead, we suggested that Saturn’s auroras are associated with a ring of upward current along the open-closed field line boundary generated by the difference in angular velocity between open and outer magnetosphere closed field lines.  In this case, the auroral emissions may then be expected to exhibit Earth-like properties such as cusp signatures (Bunce et al., 2005), substorm-like phenomena (Bunce et al., 2006), and a general variability in the size of the oval (Badman et al., 2005).  The first remote HST observations concurrent with high-latitude in situ field and particle observations (never before measured beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere) from the Cassini spacecraft have discovered evidence of the large upward-directed field-aligned currents at the open-closed field line boundary predicted by the modelling work (Bunce et al., 2008). This supports the solar wind interaction hypothesis predicted previously, and has provided a excellent basis on which to characterise the general morphology and dynamics of the auroral field-aligned current system at Saturn (Talboys et al, 2009; Bunce et al., 2010). There is also evidence of fainter, diffuse emissions at lower latitudes which likely relate to dynamics within the magnetosphere (Stallard et al., 2008). More recent work has discovered the complex relationship between the solar wind interaction current system and the large-scale magnetosphere oscillations and associated current systems known as the Planetary Period Oscillations (PPOs) (eg Hunt et al., 2014, 2015).

Our involvement in the NASA Juno mission provides an excellent opportunity to explore the polar magnetosphere Jupiter, while continuing to study Saturn’s magnetosphere up to the end of the NASA Cassini mission in 2017.  In addition, we have begun to investigate Mercury’s magnetosphere which will contribute to the future exploitation of the Leicester-led Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer instrument which is part of the ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) payload (arriving at Mercury in 2025). I have a particular interest in understanding the magnetosphere interaction with Mercury's surface on both the nightside and the dayside of the planet (Lindsay et al., 2016).

I acted as the Deputy Lead Scientist for the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter proposal to ESA under the L-Class mission competition, which was selected as the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission in 2012. The mission is due to launch in 2022 to arrive at Jupiter and Ganymede in 2030. I am the PI on the ESA/JAXA BepiColombo MIXS instrument, and am a Co-I on the sister SIXS instrument on the same mission (PI Juhani Huovelin). I am a Co-Investigator on the UK-led Cassini magnetometer team (PI Professor Michele Dougherty). I am also currently acting as the Deputy PI on the Imperial College (PI Professor Michele Dougherty) JUICE magnetometer, and am a Co-Investigator on the JUICE UVS instrument (PI Randy Gladstone, SWRi).


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