ASU professor discusses NASA mission to Jupiter moon

An ASU professor from the School of Earth and Space Exploration who is involved in an upcoming NASA mission to Jupiter’s moon said he is hopeful about the discoveries that will be made and the attention it will draw to the school.

Mikhail Zolotov, a planetary geochemist and research professor, is one of three ASU professors who were selected to contribute to the NASA exploration of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.

After NASA’s Galileo mission, which yielded strong evidence of the existence of a vast ocean hidden beneath an icy crust on Europa’s surface, and Hubble observations that suggested plumes of water shooting from Europa’s surface, scientists began speculating that Europa might be the strongest candidate to look for evidence of life beyond earth in our solar system. 

The mission, which will launch in the 2020’s, will utilize nine instruments designed by various professionals, one of which is ASU’s own Professor Philip Christensen, to test the conditions on Europa.

Mikhail Zolotov discussed the mission and the involvement he will have with it in the email interview below.

Could you describe your field of study and how you will be contributing to the NASA mission?

My interest is in the composition of Europa’s icy shell and putative subsurface ocean. This expertise is needed to design several instruments chosen for the upcoming NASA Europa mission. Two of these instruments are aimed at the investigation of tiny particles and gases in Europa’s atmosphere and plumes, which could eject subsurface materials to space. A radar instrument will be used to unveil the subsurface structure in the icy shell and may detect subsurface liquid-water or salt-rich localities.

Will ASU be highly involved with the mission?

ASU professor Philip Christensen will design and build an infrared spectrometer able to detect thermal anomalies on the surface of Europa. Potential warm places would be indicative of local release of heat and could mark areas of plume acidity. Other instruments will explore those surface places and local atmospheres in detail.

Do you think this will generate more interest in the School of Earth and Space exploration?

This exciting endeavor will attract new students to the School of Earth and Space exploration.

Have you had any previous involvement with NASA?

I was involved in the interpretation of NASA missions related to the study of Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the icy moons of giant planets.

The mission is to test the conditions of Europa for the sustainability of life, are you hopeful that the results of the mission will confirm that the conditions are suitable? Do you think it is likely we will discover life on Europa?

Although the chosen instruments are not designed to detect life, the planned mission is a logical step for Europa exploration. We will learn more about habitability of the icy moon but we may not solve the problem about life. Another mission with a lander could be needed.


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