Local scientists help NASA explore Europa, keeping Georgia front-runner for space exploration

by: Katie Walls Updated:

Two Georgia Tech Planetary Scientists are helping NASA answer the age-old question, “Could life exist elsewhere in our solar system?”

One of Jupiter’s largest moons, colder than any place on earth at minus 270°F, is the future site for one of NASA’s missions.

“Europa has this incredible ability to spark the imagination. There’s a sub-surface ocean, we know it’s there,” explained Georgia Tech planetary scientist Dr. Carol Paty.

Because of the extreme radiation on Europa, however, the mission isn’t to land on the icy moon at least not yet.

“What we’re doing here is we’re orbiting Jupiter, but we’re doing multiple close flybys of Europa,” Georgia Tech planetary scientist, Dr. Britney Schmidt said.

With each flyby nine pre-selected scientific instruments will gather valuable information. Paty and Schmidt are working on two of them, one an ice-penetrating radar!

“Think about it as an X-ray or MRI of the outer part of an ice shell. So for the first time, we’ll actually be able to see Europa’s plumbing,” Schmidt told Severe Weather Team 2 meteorologist Katie Walls. “We know that life can’t exist on the surface of Europa, but it could be down there swimming around in the ocean or living in the ice shell just as things do here on earth.”

The exploration of Europa will be somewhat of a recon mission answering questions about the moon’s chemistry, composition and if life exists in the ocean beneath its icy crust.

Questions that will be answered from nearly 400 million miles away will keep Georgia at the forefront of space exploration.

“I think you’ll see a pretty large growth in the pursuit of space science and exploration in the southeast with GA being one of the leaders,” explained by Dr. Thomas Orlando, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Space Technology and Research or C-STAR, which brings together a wide range of faculty and students active in space-related research.

Orlando explained to Walls that NASA’s retired shuttle program opened many doors for the private and education sectors, and Georgia Tech is staying at the forefront of the movement.

The mission to Europa is scheduled to launch in 2022, but the rocket will take at least six years to reach the Jupiter system.