Researcher's Tool Could Help NASA Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Seiichi Nagihara has received a $955,835 grant from NASA to develop a heat flow probe.

Seiichi Nagihara

Seiichi Nagihara

Hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, the ice-covered moon Europa circles Jupiter within the planet’s field of intense radiation. Europa’s surface temperature averages between minus 210 and minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite these unforgiving conditions, it may hold the solar system’s best chance for extraterrestrial life.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) believes that underneath its icy surface, Europa has a liquid ocean that might contain life forms, or might have at some time in the past. Any more detailed exploration of that ocean would require landing a robotic spacecraft on the moon’s surface – something that’s never been done. And that’s what ties this faraway project close to home.

Seiichi Nagihara, an associate professor of geophysics in the Texas Tech University Department of Geosciences, has been awarded a three-year grant from NASA worth $955,835 to develop an instrument – called a heat flow probe – that could be deployed to take measurements on the surface of Europa or any other ice-covered moon.

“This instrument is expected to measure the heat that is released from the surface of Europa,” Nagihara said. “Yes, the surface ice of Europa is very cold, but, because its interior is a lot warmer, it releases heat. Measuring this heat allows us to estimate how thick the ice shell is. Such measurement also allows us to infer the thermal state of the underlying liquid ocean.”


Nagihara will collaborate with the geotechnical engineering group at Honeybee Robotics, Ltd., in Pasadena, California. That’s also where he will do all his laboratory experiments and technological development work because he needs labs that are specially equipped for space mission research and development.

NASA is planning a fly-by of Europa for a closer look sometime in the next decade. And while the possibility of landing a craft on the moon is under consideration, no decisions have been made yet.

“Right now, this is just one of the many missions NASA is seriously considering for the future,” Nagihara said. “Also, even if NASA decides to land on Europa, there is no guarantee that they will take my heat flow probe there.”

NASA’s Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO) Program supports the development of spacecraft-based instrument systems that show promise for use in future planetary missions, but not all of the instruments developed through the program are used.

“This type of technological development takes many years, so NASA invests funds in a number of potentially useful scientific instruments,” Nagihara said. “That way, when NASA decides to use one of these instruments, it has already completed some groundwork and can be matured quickly.”

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