Physics Professor Nets NASA Grant

April 29, 2009 -

A University of Redlands professor has received a grant from NASA to study volcanic activity on a moon of Jupiter.

Julie Rathbun, an associate professor of physics, has received a grant of more than $275,000 from NASA's Jupiter Data Analysis Program.

Rathbun will be leading a team of five researchers from institutions including Southwest Research Institute, Catholic University and JPL. At least one University of Redlands student also will have an opportunity to spend the summer of 2010 and 2011 working on the project.

The researchers will be studying data collected during the New Horizon Spacecraft Mission in 2007. That mission's primary goal is to study Pluto, but some data on Jupiter's system also was collected along the way. Data collected by the Galileo Spacecraft Mission from 1995 to 2001 also will be used.

Rathbun said she hopes the research team learns more about how volcanoes and their activity levels have changed on the planet over time. Long-term, she said the information could be used to help predict volcano eruptions on earth.

"The more we learn about how volcanoes work now, the more likely it is that we will be able to predict how they might work in the future," she said. "That is not one of the research questions for this specific grant, but it is something we hope to eventually understand."

Rathbun has spent several years studying the moon, known as lo, and its volcanoes. Her work on the subject started with a post-doctoral fellowship at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.

She also has served as principle investigator on two other grants from NASA's Outer Planets Research Program. Those projects also focused on volcanic activity on the moon.

Rathbun said she enjoys studying lo and its volcanoes in part because there is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the moon. She says some other planets, including Mars, are better understood and also are more intensively studied by many researchers.

"I find lo really interesting," she said. "It’s a place where I can still imagine people living some day. The outer solar system is still pretty exotic — I guess it’s just strange and weird enough to keep me interested. I’m excited about this project and all that we can learn from it."

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