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Inspirational leader appointed Director of the Institute for Space

An inspirational leader at the University of Leicester who has helped develop a future mission to Jupiter to discover more about the ‘habitability of ocean worlds’ is looking forward to nurturing the long-term success of the Institute for Space in her new role as Director.

Professor Emma Bunce, the former Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy and Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics has played an instrumental role in several space missions including roles as the Principal Investigator for the Mercury Imaging X-Ray Spectrometer (MIXS) instrument on board European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) BepiColombo mission to Mercury – this instrument will provide us with high quality, never seen before X-ray images of Mercury’s surface.

In her new role as Director of the Institute for Space, Professor Bunce will work alongside the existing team of scientists and engineers striving towards innovative solutions in space exploration, satellite technology, and space-based observations of Earth and beyond. She will be responsible for overseeing the Institute’s research and impact initiatives, as well as developing new collaborations and partnerships within the University, and further afield.

“Space research at the University of Leicester has been going strong for decades and, as a community, we have developed world-leading expertise in a number of key areas,” said Professor Bunce. “I am looking forward to developing new strategic themes for the Institute which will help to strengthen existing key areas and ignite interest in new ones. I hope that the Institute will promote new connections with a broad, interdisciplinary community of space-related researchers and innovators across the University, and beyond. I am excited to have the opportunity to bring my expertise and perspective to this role, and will look forward to discussing with interested colleagues over the next few months.”

Professor Bunce’s appointment comes at a time when the University of Leicester is further expanding its focus on space research, with the official opening of Space Park Leicester in 2022. Space Park Leicester focuses on innovation and creating new value in the space sector beyond academia, working closely with industry, and delivering state-of-the-art facilities within the University, Leicester and beyond.

Interwoven with these aims, the Institute for Space can build on the 60 plus years of space-related expertise that has been developed and maintained in the School of Physics and Astronomy. The Institute will drive interdisciplinary research and motivate novel & cross-cutting ideas

Professor Bunce said: “It will be important to use the Institute for Space as a catalyst to nurture our next generation of space researchers – via new PGR opportunities, Fellowships, and UG student research internships.

“We can provide an exemplar to the UK space community in terms of our core values in equity, diversity and inclusion. I am focused on ensuring this is a clearly communicated goal of our growing Leicester space community – because it is vital in terms of building and sustaining a diverse and inclusive workforce for the space sector.

Some of her own space projects include a previous role as the Deputy Lead Scientist during the development of the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter proposal to ESA under the first L-Class mission competition, which was selected as the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission in 2012. The ESA JUICE mission is due to launch in April 2023 and is set to arrive at Jupiter in 2031, and will eventually enter orbit at Ganymede in 2034. Professor Bunce works on the magnetometer and ultraviolet spectrometer teams as Co-Investigator.

Professor Bunce also leads the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) instrument which is currently enroute to Mercury on board the ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission, following launch in 2018. That mission will start taking science data in spring of 2026, and MIXS will provide the first comprehensive picture of the planet’s surface composition, providing vital clues on the history and evolution of the planet. In addition, MIXS will provide new information on the planet’s space environment by measuring the effect of energetic particles interacting directly with the surface.

She explained: “Looking to the future it’s the fundamental science questions that really drives us to develop instrumentation for solar system exploration. I’ve helped to develop a future mission to Jupiter which is going to Ganymede (Jupiter’s largest moon), being launched this year: the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE).

“It will be the first spacecraft to enter orbit around an icy moon, and it will revolutionise our understanding of the moon itself, which we think has an ocean underneath the icy crust surface. We will also discover the details of the internally driven magnetic field at Ganymede, and its surrounding space environment including a miniature magnetosphere and auroral emissions in its atmosphere. In fact, we think there are oceans underneath multiple icy moon surfaces in the outer solar system, which opens up a whole new realm in terms of the potential for habitability and possible life beyond our planet.”

Professor Phil Baker, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise at the University of Leicester said: “We are delighted to have Professor Bunce take on this important role at the Institute for Space.

“Her expertise and leadership will be invaluable as we continue to build our reputation as a world-class centre for space research and exploration. We look forward to working with her to advance our mission of exploring the unknown and unlocking the secrets of the universe.”