Julie Rathbun, physics professor

Redlands professor recruited for NASA mission to study Europa.

More than 390 million miles away, under the icy crust of a moon named Europa, an alien ocean may hold the greatest possibility of present-day life beyond Earth. If it is there, Julie Rathbun, planetary scientist and physics professor at the University of Redlands, aims to find it.

Her quest is part of NASA’s Mission to Europa—an unmanned, radiation-tolerant spacecraft scheduled to launch in the early 2020s. The craft will observe Europa, one of Jupiter’s four moons, to confirm suspicions raised by data from the 14-year Jupiter Galileo mission and subsequent studies that an ocean may exist under Europa’s surface.

Rathbun will team up with NASA scientists and engineers from Jet Propulsion Laboratory to do the kind of work planetary scientists dream about.

“It’s amazing,” she says, “to be the first person to ‘see’ something on another world, whether in an image, or in the data.”

Although it is rare for a planetary scientist from a small liberal arts institution to be recruited for a NASA mission, Rathbun and her research are well known in the planetary science community. She has studied Europa and its neighboring moon, Io (“i-o”), for more than a decade.

Rathbun, with the help of her research students at Redlands, has collected and analyzed data on Io’s volcanoes to learn about tidal heating, the dominant heat source in the outer solar system. Its presence is key to Europa having a liquid ocean and the qualities needed for life.

She envisions future students working with her on the Europa research as well. “If someone enters the University, say, the year before the mission arrives at Jupiter, that student could spend his or her first summer working with me on data reduction, and then spend the next three years as part of the mission, actually attending meetings and continuing to work on the data while taking classes.”

For the Mission to Europa, Rathbun will serve as one of nine scientists working with the E-THEMIS instrument, a thermal emission imaging system that will measure temperatures on Europa’s surface. The instrument is one of many that will collect data during close fly-bys and orbits in search of organic chemicals, energy sources and water to determine Europa’s habitability

The spacecraft could take up to five years to reach Europa. Collected data will travel back to Earth via telescopes called the Deep Space Network. Once received, engineers will convert the data into a usable format to be shared with the science team.

— Jennifer Dobbs ’17