Britney Schmidt

UT scientists are designing a mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, to test theories that the moon’s large supply of liquid water might contain life.

Scientists Don Blankenship, Britney Schmidt and Krista Soderlund have developed a blueprint for a prospective NASA lander mission to Europa. Lander missions involve sending unmanned spacecrafts to the surface of a planet in order to collect geologic data as well as other information. The concept was developed to investigate the moon’s potential to support life.

Soderlund, a postdoctoral fellow at the University’s Institute for Geophysics, said the mission was designed so scientists can examine Europa’s potential for sustaining life.

“The primary science objectives and investigations are to understand the habitability of Europa’s ocean through composition and chemistry,” Soderlund said.

The highest priority of the lander mission concept is to answer questions about the chemical makeup of the ice surrounding Jupiter’s global ocean, Soderlund said. NASA’s Galileo mission, which explored the moons of Jupiter in the ‘90s, collected strong evidence indicating the possibility of a deep water ocean beneath the moon’s surface.

Blankenship, a senior research scientist at the institute, said the lander mission will focus on gathering specifics about the ice.

“[The objective is] to characterize the local thickness, heterogeneity and dynamics of any ice and water layers,” Blankenship said.

To characterize the dynamics of the ice and water layers, the scientists must create the lander mission to measure the seismicity and induced magnetic fields and to characterize the surface geology by obtaining high resolution images, Soderlund said. 

The trio has been at the forefront of developing the project to explore Europa. Schmidt, a former postdoctoral fellow at the institute and current assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said landing on Jupiter’s moon would provide valuable information that is impossible to gather from a distance.

“[The mission] would create science opportunities that could not be achieved through flyby or orbital remote sensing, with direct relevance to Europa’s potential habitability,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the trio discussed the suggested science objectives and investigations for a Europa lander mission, along with a model planning payload of instruments that could address specific objectives. In discussions, the trio summarized the science of a Europa lander concept, as developed by the NASA-commissioned Science Definition Team.

Currently, the three scientists working to plan specifics for the mission to ensure the spacecraft will be prepared to gather evidence upon landing.

Projects in Antarctica by UT researchers in the Institute for Geophysics could be affected by a summary of plans released by the National Science Foundation to improve research and facilities in the United States Antarctic Program.

The National Science Foundation released the report, “More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness,” last week as a response to ten recommendations made by the U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Panel. The panel was put in place to conduct an independent review of policy and advise the agency on how to improve its logistical capabilities.

UT Research scientist associate, Joseph MacGregor, said he understands why the foundation has chosen to take this approach given the challenging budget situation.

“Program managers and proposal review panels already consider the logistics burdens of proposal projects, although the latter group does so perhaps more indirectly than the former,” Macgregor said. “Reviewing the scientific merit of proposals is already a lot of work, so I’m concerned that requiring a more formal review of logistics costs will shift added burden to scientists if it is not implemented effectively.”

The report indicated the foundation has already begun implementing many of the cost-saving ideas proposed by the Blue Ribbon Panel. 

According to UT research scientist associate, Britney Schmidt, most of the logistical costs are for maintaining sites, which is necessary, and not due the impact of any one grant.

“Of course there are probably ways to cut back, but I think we’re in a climate of cutting for cutting’s sake, and at some point, you start cutting out the ability to do great science,” Schmidt said.

Representatives of the foundation are considering ways to reduce the size of its ice-equipped aircraft fleet, which has become costly. Schmidt said this year there were already too few flights scheduled for the C17 aircraft impacting everyone on site.

“This impacted everyone because science equipment was late, which can extend or prevent program operation,” Schmidt said. “By saving a few flights' cost, you might actually lose more money by having to have more people around the site for longer, or by having to have a second season for some programs that can’t finish their objectives. Or worse, not having the ability for programs to finish their objectives, which has all kinds of costs you might not be able to put on a line item.”

Forcing principal investigators and review panels to consider the cost effectiveness of their institution’s proposed work is concerning to senior research scientist Don Blankenship.

“There is no way an individual [principal investigators] can accommodate the full spectrum of these imperatives within a particular proposal and if we tried to address those issues there would be significant push back by our reviewers as well as the administrators overseeing the proposal process,” Blankenship said. “The bottom line here is that we will continue to propose work that is justifiably efficient within the NSF operational system as we understand it.”