Recent UAA graduate works on Jupiter moon mission

Recent UAA graduate works on Jupiter moon mission
Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 6:04 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A recent graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage is helping get images of a faraway moon back to Earth.

Charlie Detelich is a part of the team working on NASA’s Europa Clipper mission sending a spacecraft to observe Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

“It’s really interesting because (Europa) is about the size of our moon, but it has over two times the amount of liquid water that Earth has, except it’s encased in a subsurface ocean,” Detelich said. “The way that the moon is structured is that it has this sort of icy crust. And then it has an about 100 kilometer-deep ocean.”

According to NASA, the Europa Clipper goal is reconnaissance and to see if Europa could hold life.

Detelich said she a part of multiple aspects of the mission, but she’s working on the Europa Imaging System with the team in charge of the spacecraft’s cameras.

“They’ve only imaged about 10% of the surface in high-resolution imagery,” she said. “This mission is going to go back and image probably about 90% of the surface in much better resolution.”

She said the spacecraft will have two cameras, one narrow angle and one wide angle.

“Essentially, when you take an image, sometimes there are parts of that image that might not turn out exactly how you wanted it to,” Detelich said. “And so, I’m helping with the team that’ll calibrate those images and make sure they’re looking exactly how we need them to look.”

She said it was a professor who drew her to UAA, where her thesis focused on Europa.

Geology graduate students look for a professor at a university that does research similar to what the graduate is interested in, according to Detelich. The professor then takes the student on as a mentor.

“I do think she’s a perfect fit for the Europa Clipper mission team that she’s on now,” said her mentor, UAA Geophysical Sciences Professor Simon Kattenhorn.

Kattenhorn is the associate dean of math and natural sciences and social sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at UAA, and also one of the world’s leading Europa geology experts.

“There are many experts in Europa geology,” Kattenhorn said. “There are just a limited number of people working (in my) particular field on Europa.”

Kattenhorn thinks studying at UAA had an “enormous impact” on Detelich’s education.

“One of the things to keep in mind is that our researchers here UAA are internationally recognized, they’re top notch, they’re very well-funded by federal agencies,” he said. “By coming to UAA, Charlie had the benefit of working with faculty who are very, very good at what they do, but also in a small graduate program where the personal attention may be higher than larger programs.”

Detelich finished her master’s degree in applied geological sciences at UAA during the pandemic. She said her time with the college taught her a lot about perseverance.

“When things don’t necessarily go your way, just sort of taking a moment to acknowledge things did not go your way and then figuring out what your next steps are,” she said, referencing the changes everyone dealt with during the pandemic.

Detelich said it is an important aspect of mission work.

“Stuff that we do often does not go our way,” she said. “When you have a spacecraft that’s a couple billion miles away, if something goes wrong, you have to figure out how to fix it.”

That held true when things didn’t go as planned after graduation for Detelich. She said the offer for the mission came after a competitive year of doctoral program rejections.

“I was kind of wallowing around my house because I had received all these PhD rejections,” she said. “And then I got that notification on my phone. And I probably read the email five or 10 times because I was like, ‘Are you? Are you sure? Like, is this a real thing that’s happening?’”

She said she had a lot of disbelief at first, “but now I just feel pure excitement.”

In the future, Detelich would like to lead her own NASA missions.

“I would really love to help with getting to icy worlds in the outer solar system, similar to Europa,” she said. “I’m really fascinated by icy satellites in the outer solar system.”

Copyright 2021 KTUU. All rights reserved.