Key NASA Mission Gives Undergrads a Jumpstart into Research

September 28, 2021

concept image of europa lander
Concept image of Europa lander. Credit NASA

NASA is gearing up for a mission to land on Jupiter's moon Europa, which houses a deep ocean beneath an icy shell. This mission, which could seek evidence of life on an icy world, is one of a kind, and it's also created a unique opportunity for students in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

Several undergraduate students in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics have gotten a chance to work on the Europa lander project, mostly focusing on computational simulations. For many of these students, working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a childhood dream come true. And it's also a chance to get some early professional experience, participate in cutting-edge research and inform their future career choices.

“Our research group simulates the very thin atmospheres and the ice on the surfaces of several satellites and planets with NASA support,” said David Goldstein, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. “Europa’s exosphere and surface interactions are unique in several ways; we are trying to understand how Europa’s surface has evolved and whether it would present particular hazards to a lander.”

Goldstein, along with fellow ASE/EM professor Philip Varghese and Laurence Trafton, a senior research scientist from the Department of Astronomy in the College of Natural Sciences, advised the students and helped them connect with JPL.

Europa is one of the largest of Jupiter's nearly 80 moons. It is about 90% the size of the Earth's moon.

The students are working on computational simulations focused on the surface of the moon. The simulations aim to recreate Europa's cold, airless environment and to track the shape of a water-ice snow surface over millions of years. The researchers are mainly interested in the formation of penitentes, which are sharp, pointed structures or "spikes" on the icy surface. The simulations – coded from scratch by the student researchers – can simultaneously track sunlight scattering in snow, warming of the surface interior, and sublimation and deposition of water molecules as the surface evolves.

By simulating the surface evolution at different locations on Europa, the team can pinpoint areas that are more likely to form penitentes. And with that knowledge, NASA will have a better idea of which parts of the surface to avoid when deciding where to send the lander or future spacecraft.

NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper in October 2024. Key mission objectives, per NASA, include producing high-resolution images of Europa's surface, looking for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity, measuring the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, searching for subsurface lakes and determining the depth and salinity of Europa's ocean.

concept image of nasa clipper flying by jupiter
This illustration, updated in December 2020, depicts NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft. With an internal global ocean twice the size of Earth's oceans combined, Jupiter's moon Europa may have the potential to harbor life. The Europa Clipper orbiter will swoop around Jupiter on an elliptical path, dipping close to the moon on each flyby to collect data. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"We eventually want to send this lander out there and basically go ice fishing and see if there is any life in that ocean interior," said Anthony Carreon, who graduated from ASE/EM in 2020 and majored in computational engineering.

Carreon was one of the first UT Austin students working on this project at JPL. He grew up in Dallas playing simulation games such as Sim City and Roller Coaster Tycoon, and he wanted to translate that into research.

Goldstein introduced Carreon to the project and helped him get an internship. That introduction was during Carreon's junior year in 2018, and he has been working on the project ever since. His time at JPL concluded this fall, and he is now at graduate school at the University of Michigan. Carreon is working towards his PhD in aerospace engineering and doing research with the Advanced Propulsion Concepts Lab there.

Carreon has wanted to work at JPL since he was a kid staying up late to watch the Mars Curiosity mission. And when he actually realized this dream, Carreon said he felt a bit of imposter syndrome, like he didn't belong. But over time, that feeling faded and he gained a new level of confidence.

When he was getting started, Carreon said, the computational engineering major was relatively new. It's a mix of math, computer science and software engineering applied to real world problems. But it wasn't quite translating as he looked at job and internship opportunities.

"I would go to career fairs, and they would ask if I was computer science or aerospace or software engineering; they weren't sure how to categorize me," Carreon said. "The research helped me narrow down exactly what I wanted to do within this major."

computational image of europa physics
Progression of the simulation through 5 different computing stages for a day on Europa. Each stage simulates a different component of the relevant physics.

Antonio Macias joined the project a year after Carreon. A 2021 ASE graduate, Macias has been fascinated with aerospace for most of his life. As a kid, he insisted on checking out the cockpit every time he flew on a plane, and if it didn’t happen he would get upset.

Like Carreon, Macias got connected with JPL through Goldstein, Varghese and Trafton. Some of the concepts were ahead of his studies at that time — advanced physics and extracting data from experiments. But these challenges helped him succeed in other classes and prepare for graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology this year, where he will pursue a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory.

“I've had the chance to learn from other branches of science to achieve my goals and avoid mistakes once graduated," said Macias, who was born in Cuba. "This experience has reinforced my long childhood dreams and helped me develop knowledge and skills with the objective of engineering to support a better future for humanity.”

Zoelle Wong, an incoming fifth-year senior from Temple, Texas, plans to graduate with a double major in aerospace engineering and Chinese. However, like many students, she didn't know what she wanted to do after graduation.

Wong is one of the next batch of students who have inherited the JPL program from Carreon and Macias. This year, they will focus on using computer simulations to improve the “Ark Chamber” at JPL, an insulated cryogenic vacuum box used for experiments that aims to replicate Europa-like conditions.  

The work helped Wong narrow her focus and see that graduate school and research are good options for her going forward.

Wong said the experience of working at JPL has totally lived up to the hype so far. And she is excited to work on this frontier of research that is starting to blossom into an industry of its own.

"If space is an incoming industry as many people think it is, we might as well start learning as much as we can, as soon as possible," Wong said. "Even if life doesn't exist on Europa, projects like these will help develop technology to explore deep space."

Andy Hsu is the youngest of the group so far, a junior majoring in aerospace engineering with a certificate in computer science. Hsu, a native of San Jose, California, brings more of a traditional tech mindset. His interest lies in marrying coding with traditional scientific processes.

Hsu called working at JPL, "a childhood dream come true." When he started working there, he was unsure of his career path and was leaning toward working in industry right away. But this experience has shifted his thought process, and like his fellow colleagues, pushed him in the direction of research.

"I've learned that this specific type of academic research is really rewarding for me," Hsu said. “So, it's something that has definitely made me think about a five-year plan, and I am more inclined to go to grad school and continue academic opportunities than launching into industry right away."