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NMSU researchers propose concept to study Europa?s atmosphere

What would it be like to study the atmosphere of Jupiter?s icy moon, Europa? A group of professors and students from New Mexico State University presented findings following a 9-month concept study focused on measuring properties of Europa?s atmosphere at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this summer.


Graphic of space probe design
Model drawing of what NMSU?s Europa CubeSat concept would look like as its panels unfurled. NMSU was one of 10 university teams selected by NASA to conduct a concept study for a CubeSat ? a small, low-cost space probe. The team of researchers presented their findings, focused on measuring properties of Europa?s atmosphere, at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this summer. (NMSU graphic by Kyle Rankin)

NMSU was one of 10 university teams selected by NASA to conduct a concept study for a CubeSat ? a small, low-cost space probe. The roughly ten-pound CubeSat would be deployed by the Europa Clipper spacecraft upon its arrival to the moon in the 2020?s.

The objective of NMSU?s study, titled ?A Europa CubeSat Concept Study for Measuring Atmospheric Production and Structure,? was aimed at measuring certain properties of Europa?s thin and tenuous atmosphere by flying a CubeSat through it.

NMSU?s concept is called DARCSIDE (Deployable Atmospheric Reconnaissance CubeSat with Sputtering Ion Detector at Europa), which would allow the CubeSat to make one low-altitude pass over Europa?s surface. While making this pass, the CubeSat would measure both the atmospheric drag using the probe?s panels, and the flux of oxygen ions near Europa?s surface.

?These ions sputtered off of Europa?s surface are believed to be the primary constituent of Europa?s atmosphere,? said Nancy Chanover, associate professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences, and principal investigator for NMSU?s CubeSat proposal team. ?So by measuring the flux of ions we can infer something about how Europa?s atmosphere is produced.?

NASA has not committed to the use of CubeSats on the Europa Clipper spacecraft, but used these brief concept studies by different university teams to see what could be learned if they were applied. At this point, it is uncertain whether NMSU?s team will receive funding to continue the study.

?If we were to extend the study further, we would examine various alternatives to our engineering design to try and identify the risks and strengths of each design,? Chanover said.

Other members of NMSU?s proposal team include: co-investigators astronomy professor Jim Murphy; Steven Stochaj, interim dean of the engineering college; astronomy graduate student Alexander Thelen and Kyle Rankin, a mechanical and aerospace engineering undergraduate.

Other universities selected by NASA to conduct a CubeSat concept study included Stanford University, Arizona State University at Tempe, and University of Southern California.

For more information on the initial CubeSat concept selections, visit www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4330.