The UI in space

BY YUN LIN | JUNE 15, 2015 5:00 AM

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In as little as five years, a small part of the University of Iowa will be launched into space to explore new worlds.

Scientists at the Physics and Astronomy Department are participating in a NASA mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, planned to launch in the early 2020s.

The mission will give scientists an in-depth understanding of the icy moon.

“NASA and scientists’ interest in Europa is because they believe that it has potential ingredients to support life,” UI principal engineer Jeffrey Dolan said. “This Europa mission — one of the goals — is to study geology of Europa to determine its possibility and capability.”

He believes this could be a big step for human beings on the way to explore the existence of liquid water in the Solar System beyond Earth.

A thick, frozen crust covers Europa, and scientists suspect there is an ocean of liquid water underneath it.

UI senior engineering associate Don Kirchner said that if the idea is confirmed, Europa may have twice the amount of water as Earth, so the giant moon could be the best place in the Solar System beyond our planet to host the sustainable conditions for life.

However, first the scientists must get past that thick, icy crust, which is where the UI comes in.

Kirchner is the engineer in charge of developing the ice-penetrating radar of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission, which aims to explore Europa and two of Jupiter’s other moons, Ganymede and Calisto.

This isn’t the first time Kirchner has helped send a probe into space. Previously, he helped develop the radar sounder in the Mars Express, currently orbiting Mars.

This also isn’t the first time the UI has sent a probe into space, either, and the scientists seemed proud when they were talking about the Europa mission.

“We are part of a team that NASA selected, in part, for the capabilities and experience of the team,” said research scientist William Kurth.

“The UI space department in general — of course — we have a long history,” Dolan said. “Dr. Van Allen launched his instrumentations on the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, and we’ve followed Dr. Van Allen’s first launch with number of other projects. We have many decades of heritage in space science.”

The scientific goals of the Europa mission are driven by its instruments, which have to be tested extensively by researchers.

Kirchner said the problems they met during the process of developing the transmitter included the harsh radiation in the space, which he said was the biggest problem, and gave scientists a very small selection when choosing the materials.

“Some types of plastic will disintegrate, some transistors will fail, and computer chips will stop working,” he said.

Kurth said the giant moon does not harbor suitable conditions for human beings.  However, he said, there is the possibility for microorganisms to exist under the surface of the moon if a liquid ocean is discovered.

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