UAA professor invited to work with NASA to send spacecraft to Jupiter’s smallest moon

Simon Kattenhorn, who has a doctorate in geological and environmental sciences and a master’s degree in geology, is a professor at UAA and the director of the Department of Geological Sciences.

Dr. Simon Kattenhorn teaches courses in structural geology, geomechanics and geohazards at UAA. Photo credit: Ted Kincaid

NASA reached out to Kattenhorn to partake in a workshop in Pasadena, California, hosted by the Europa Clipper mission team. Here he would provide his expertise on Jupiter’s smallest moon, Europa.

The objective of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is to “to investigate whether Jupiter’s moon Europa could harbor primitive life under its icy shell,” according to the mission’s website.

The Europa Clipper is slated to make its three year journey to Jupiter in 2023, where it will orbit the planet 72 times in order to collect data from Europa.

Along with Kattenhorn’s qualifications as a geologist, Kattenhorn has also been studying the geology of Europa for years, including content published in a textbook as well as several papers — most notably for Nature Geoscience in 2014.

“I have worked on the geology of Europa for 20 years, so I am excited to be asked to be part of this process,” Kattenhorn wrote in an email.

The objective of the workshop Kattenhorn attended in November was to evaluate any ramifications regarding contamination that would follow the unlikely event that the Europa Clipper were to collide with Europa. This is a genuine concern for the team, as foreign contaminants from the spacecraft could contaminate bodies of water on the subsurface of Europa should they exist. Furthermore, contaminants could severely skew data gathered from Europa and effectively waste years of work. With that being said, the Europa Clipper mission team is exercising utmost caution on the matter, simulating a myriad of different scenarios.

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Along with Kattenhorn, “the [Europa Clipper] team reached out to a few planetary geoscientists to request our input,” said Kattenhorn. “The workshop also involved microbiologists and some folks from NASA headquarters.”

Despite several experiments relating to instances in which the Europa Clipper mission could produce any unwanted results for the moon and spacecraft, Kattenhorn still feels optimistic about the project’s success if the plan continues as scheduled.

“My expectation is that everything will go flawlessly, and we will gain tremendous new insights into the surface of Europa and its interior geological processes once the spacecraft achieves Jupiter orbit,” he wrote.

It is expected that this one workshop will not be Kattenhorn’s last collaboration with NASA, as the need for expertise will be a consistent need for the team. Kattenhorn will still be an active researcher when the Europa Clipper’s data returns from its voyage in the future. Despite this being about a decade removed from today, Kattenhorn still is expected to work with NASA in the near future.

“I have been asked to be a part of the subsurface modeling support team for the ongoing planetary protection protocol study in 2019 and expect to travel to NASA headquarters next summer,” Kattenhorn said.

“I am honored to be involved in this process and look forward to ongoing collaborations with NASA on this mission,” he added.