Beyond Alaska and beyond Earth

(Photo courtesy of Charlie Detelich)

Applied geological sciences master’s graduate Charlie Detelich vividly remembers the day she was offered a position at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory supporting the NASA Europa Clipper mission planned to launch in October 2024. That day, she was still processing the rejections she received to several Ph.D. programs.

“I was wallowing around my house and all of a sudden I got this magical email that said the best opportunity of your life has just been offered to you. Do you want it?” said Detelich. “My entire life I’ve wanted to work on NASA missions. It felt like a dream come true. All this hard work finally paid off. It was so surreal and exciting.”

As part of the laboratory’s space exploration team until August 2022, Detelich will primarily work on predevelopment for the imaging system attached to the orbital spacecraft. Put another way, she’ll be calibrating the settings on the cameras that are programmed to take high-resolution photographs of the moon Europa from low orbit.

Europa is of great interest to NASA and the general scientific community. It potentially holds secrets about life in the universe due to the vast subsurface ocean protected by the moon’s outer icy shell. The third mission to the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, Europa Clipper will build off of what was learned from the Voyager spacecraft in the ‘80s and the Galileo spacecraft in the ‘90s with vastly superior technology.

After a three-year journey, Europa Clipper will not only take more detailed photos using the advanced imaging system Detelich is assisting with, but will also fly closer than any spacecraft before and directly through geysers to collect samples. The orbiter is also equipped with a radar that is powerful enough to more clearly peer through the moon’s surface, and a magnetometer to see how Jupiter’s magnetic field interacts with Europa.

“On Earth, where we have water, we have life. So Europa Clipper is essentially looking for the ingredients of life,” said Detelich. “We might be able to find out if there’s life beyond Earth. We could learn how life started on Earth, because that’s something we don’t really know. So the mission is contributing to human understanding of our place in the universe.”