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Professor Ian Peter Wright

Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Professor of Planetary Sciences
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • School of Physical Sciences
  • ian.wright

Professional biography


Multidisciplinary scientist operating in interdisciplinary space.

My interests now are, in many ways, the same as when I was a youngster:

• I like to know how things work and, in some cases, why they don’t

• I want to see inside things, both literally and metaphorically

• I wonder why we are here, be it from a scientific or philosophical perspective


I have been a member of the Open University for three decades, prior to which I was at Cambridge University, completing my PhD and then starting post-doctoral work. My background is in instrument design and construction, elemental and isotopic analysis, cosmochemistry and space exploration.

I am the Principal Investigator for the Ptolemy instrument (part of the Rosetta mission), which is currently on the surface of a comet. Ptolemy was born out of many years of experience gained through designing and building novel instruments for use in the laboratory.

In 2009 I finished a 4-year term as Head of Department for what was then known as PSSRI – the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute. We said goodbye to PSSRI during Faculty re-structuring, after which, Planetary and Space Sciences (PSS) became a Discipline within the newly created Department of Physical Sciences. I was then the first Head of PSS stepping down from the role at the end of 2013. In 2015 the new Discipline of Space Instrumentation (SI) was created; I am currently a member of this.

The ethos of PSS/SI, like its forerunner, remains one of interdisciplinarity. We are a group of scientists of various backgrounds, who have come together because of a passion for exploring the natural world beyond Earth, and who wish to understand their home planet within its cosmic setting. In some cases this requires details; in others, we use a broad-brush. Either way there is a need for a multidisciplinary approach and an ability to operate across disciplines.

In recent times we have begun to broaden our remit to include a number of enterprise activities. I am delighted to see that a number of the people who have worked with me over the years, on what might be thought of as academic pursuits, are now using their expertise and skills in a broader portfolio of applications.

Research interests

When asked to describe myself in a research context I may use any of the following, depending upon circumstances: “planetary scientist”, “cosmochemist”, “meteoriticist”, “isotope chemist”, or “instrument scientist”. It reflects life in a multidisciplinary environment and demonstrates how many facets there are to people who work in “space”. At root my interests are in the origin and evolution of the Solar System, in particular, and solar systems in general. And since human beings are here to contemplate such phenomena, it is inevitable that one is also interested in the relationship of living things with the cosmos (from the hard science associated with the origin of life, to the difficulties of understanding consciousness, to the philosophical aspects of the anthropic principle). To make headway with these lofty ideals, the day job involves laboratory analyses of extraterrestrial materials (meteorites, samples from the Moon and Mars, cosmic dust, interstellar grains) to provide insights and constraints on specific formation mechanisms. In addition, I use the vehicles of space exploration and laboratory simulation to gain new perspectives on the nature and development of planetary environments beyond Earth. My speciality is in the measurement and comprehension of the stable isotope ratios of the biogenically important elements, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur.

These are some of the topics that I am currently involved with:

• Gerontology of pre-solar grains, and what constraints this brings to bear on the origin of the Solar System.

• Laboratory simulations to test various hypotheses regarding conditions on early Earth, with reference to the origin of life.

• Deployment of detailed geochemical techniques to elucidate the development of environmental conditions on Mars.

• Study of the nature of cometary surfaces.

• Development of sensors and instruments for analytical purposes.

• The use of immersive virtual realities for educational and outreach purposes.

Teaching interests

Over the years I have been involved with many OU courses including S102, S103, S104, S198, S269, S281, S283 and S288. My current interests in teaching center around delivery mechanisms and methods of course production, and whilst a fan of exploring all possible means of study, I think that reports of the death of the book are exaggerated.

Research Activity

Research groups

NameTypeParent Unit
Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR)CentreFaculty of Science
Cosmochemistry Research GroupGroupFaculty of Science
SUSTECH: Energy and Environmental Research UnitUnitFaculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology


Externally funded projects

Planetary Science at the Open University 2017-2020

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Co-investigator01/Apr/201731/Aug/2020STFC Science & Technology Facilities Council
Our proposed research programme addresses the origin and evolution of the Solar System, including surfaces, atmospheres and physical, geological, chemical and biological processes on the terrestrial planets, the Moon, asteroids, comets, icy satellites and extraterrestrial materials, in a range of projects which address the STFC Science Roadmap challenge B: “How do stars and planetary systems develop and is life unique to our planet?” The inner rocky bodies of the Solar System are of particular importance in understanding planetary system evolution, because of their common origin but subsequent divergent histories. Lunar samples will be used to determine the abundance and composition of volatile elements on the Moon, their source(s) in the lunar interior, and processes influencing their evolution over lunar geological history. Oxygen isotope analysis will be used to determine the conditions and processes that shape the formation of materials during the earliest stages of Solar System formation. Mars is the focus of international Solar System exploration programmes, with the ultimate aim of Mars Sample Return. We will: investigate the martian water cycle on global and local scales through a synthesis of atmospheric modeling, space mission data and surface geology; assess potential changes in the composition of Mars’ atmosphere over time through measurement of tracers trapped in martian meteorites of different ages; and determine whether carbon dioxide, rather than water flow, is able to account for recently active surface features on Mars. Mercury is an end-member in the planet-formation spectrum and we plan to exploit NASA MESSENGER data to study its origin and crustal evolution, and prepare for ESA’s BepiColombo mission. The cold outer regions of the Solar System, and particularly comets, are believed to have retained some of the most pristine primitive material from their formation. We plan to probe the composition and origins of cometary material and understand the processes that drive cometary activity through: laboratory analysis of the most primitive Interplanetary Dust Particles; and direct measurements of a comet by our instruments on the Rosetta mission, together with laboratory simulations. We will conduct laboratory ultraviolet observations of irradiated ices to provide new insights into the composition of Solar System ices and how they may create atmospheres around their parent bodies. We will also investigate the role volatiles can play in the cohesion (“making”) of Solar System minor bodies, and the fragmentation that can be achieved by thermal cycling (a candidate process that “breaks” them). The question of whether Earth is a unique location for life in the Solar System remains one of the most enduring questions of our time. We plan to investigate how the geochemistry of potentially habitable environments on Mars, Europa and Enceladus would change over geological timescales if life was present, producing distinguishable biomarkers that could be used as evidence of life in the Solar System. We will study the role of hypervelocity impacts in: the processing of compounds of critical interest to habitability (water, sulfur-species, organic species) during crater formation; and the hydrothermal system of the 100 km diameter Manicouagan impact structure in Canada to assess the astrobiological implications of hydrothermal systems for early Mars. In addition to satisfying humanity’s innate desire to explore and understand the Universe around us, our research has more tangible benefits. We use the analytical techniques involved from development of space and laboratory instrumentation for applications with companies in fields as diverse as medicine, security, tourism and cosmetics. One of the most important benefits of our research is that it helps to train and inspire students - the next generation of scientists and engineers – through training within the University and public outreach and schools programmes.


RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Co-investigator01/Apr/201631/Mar/2018ESA (European Space Agency)
We are to lead the development of "ProSPA", a miniature analytical laboratory to detect and analyse water and other volatiles that might be cold-trapped at the south pole of the Moon. Together with the drill system "ProSEED", ProSPA makes up "PROSPECT", the European Space Agency's vision for a technology and science package for use in collaborative space missions with international partners. ProSPA builds upon technology and know-how developed for Rosetta and Beagle 2 to identify, quantify and isotopically characterise volatiles in a mass spectrometer suite. ProSPA will hence provide insight into the water cycle on the Moon over billions of years and into the availability of resources for in situ resource utilisation (ISRU) by future exploration missions.

Multi-instrument analysis of Rosetta data - Establishing a new paradigm for cometary activity and composition

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Lead29/Feb/201631/Aug/2018EC (European Commission): FP(inc.Horizon2020, H2020, ERC)
A multi-disciplinary, pan-European project to consider the implications of the results from the Rosetta space mission.

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