On a mission

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Redlands professor recruited for NASA mission to study Europa

by Jennifer Dobbs ’16

More than 390 million miles away, under a crust of ice on a moon named Europa, an alien ocean may hold the greatest possibility of present-day life beyond Earth. Julie Rathbun, a planetary scientist and physics professor at the University of Redlands, is on a mission to find out.

With scientists at NASA and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Rathbun is part of the Mission to Europa—an unmanned, radiation-tolerant spacecraft scheduled to launch in the early 2020s and observe Europa, one of the four moons of Jupiter. The mission’s primary goal is to confirm suspicions, raised by data from the 14-year Jupiter mission Galileo and subsequent studies, of a subsurface salty liquid water ocean under Europa’s icy crust. It is the kind of work planetary scientists like Rathbun “dream of.”

“It’s just amazing to be the first person to ‘see’ something on another world, whether in an image, or in the data,” she says.

The spacecraft will be fitted with instruments designed specifically for this mission that will collect data during close fly-bys and orbits looking for organic chemicals, energy sources and water to determine Europa’s habitability. Rathbun is one of nine scientists on the team for the E-THEMIS instrument—a thermal emission imaging system to measure temperatures on the surface of Europa.

It is rare for a planetary scientist from a small liberal arts institution to be recruited for a NASA mission—she is one of two on the Europa project—but Rathbun is well known in the planetary science community for her research. For more than a decade, Rathbun has studied Europa and Io (“i-o”), the moon next to it orbiting Jupiter.

With the help of her research students at the University, Rathbun has collected and analyzed data on Io’s volcanoes to learn about tidal heating, the dominant heat source in the outer solar system and key to Europa having a liquid ocean and qualities for life. Research student Nathaniel Rodriguez ’11 co-authored a project with Rathbun to determine Europa’s surface thermophysical properties and look for endogenic (originating from within) heating. He presented his work at the American Astronomical Society.

Ifft Student Science Researcher Sebastian Saballet ’17, a physics and environmental science major, is learning about the surface of Europa and is scheduled to present research at the Department of Planetary Sciences.

“Under Dr. Rathbun’s mentoring I’ve learned about planetary science, and specifically how to understand the data collected from the Galileo,” he says. “As I’ve conducted this research, I’ve learned how I could use and expand on it for planetary science and or material science in graduate school.”

Rathbun says she envisions future students working with her on the Europa research in the same way. “If someone entered the University, say, the year before the mission arrived at Jupiter, that student could spend his or her first summer working with me on data reduction, and then spend the next three years as part of the mission, actually attending meetings and continuing to work on the data while taking classes.”

In Spring 2017, Rathbun will teach a topics course on the Europa mission at the University. “We will have the Europa Mission project scientist from JPL come out to campus to talk with the students. I’m also planning at least one trip to JPL with the students so that they can see the work happening on the mission and hear about the discussions.”

It could take up to five years for the spacecraft to reach Europa. Data will travel back to Earth via telescopes called the Deep Space Network. Once received, engineers will convert the data into a usable format to be shared with the science team.

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