NASA mission will use new instrument to see below Europa’s icy crust
Monday, June 1, 2015

When a NASA spacecraft sets off to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa to look for the ingredients of life, radar equipment designed to pierce the ice of Antarctica will be among the passengers.

NASA has recently selected nine instruments to be developed for a mission to Europa, and technology developed by researchers with the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy will be an important part of one of those instruments. 

The instruments will be tasked with scanning Europa for environments that could sustain life. Scientists think that Europa could be one of the best places in our solar system to look for habitable conditions because there is evidence of an ocean of water under the thick ice that completely covers the moon, as well as sulfuric compounds, one of life’s chemical building blocks, on its surface.

The Europa mission will include an ice penetrating radar to determine the thickness of the icy shell surrounding the moon, and it will look for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica. University of Iowa research engineer Don Kirchner is the principal engineer developing the transmitter for the radar and the complex electrical network connecting the instrument to the radar antenna. UI research scientist William Kurth is a co-investigator on the project, entitled Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON).

NASA expects the Europa mission to launch in the 2020s. The spacecraft will enter orbit around Jupiter and perform 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes ranging from as high as 1,700 miles to as low as 16 miles.

The University of Iowa was selected for its contribution to the REASON investigation based on its role in the radar sounder on Mars Express, currently in orbit at Mars, and its current development of a transmitter for an ice penetrating radar to explore Ganymede on the European Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission.

The principal investigator for the project is professor Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is leading the instrument development, which includes the Iowa transmitter.