CPSH Seminar Series: Donald Blankenship, University of Texas Institute for Geophysics


March 25, 2024 at 1:00pm CT

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Portrait photo of Don Blankenship

Speaker: Donald Blankenship, Research Professor, University of Texas Institute for Geophysics

Host: Brandon Jones

Title: Exploring Europa, Jupiter’s Ocean World: A View from Earth (and Mars)

Abstract: Europa Subsurface Studies: The Europa Clipper is a NASA mission to study Europa, the ice- covered moon of Jupiter characterized by a global sub-ice ocean overlying a silicate mantle, through a series of fly-by observations from a spacecraft in Jovian orbit. The science goal is to “explore Europa to investigate its habitability”. The Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) is one of the primary instruments of the scientific payload. REASON is an active dual-frequency (9/60 MHz) instrument led by the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG). It is designed to achieve multi-disciplinary measurements to investigate subsurface waters and the ice shell structure (Sounding), the surface elevation and tides (Altimetry), near-surface physical properties (Reflectometry), and the ionospheric environment including plume activity (Plasma/Particles). REASON will play a critical role in achieving the mission’s habitability driven science objectives, which include characterizing the distribution of any shallow subsurface water, searching for an ice-ocean interface and evaluating a broad spectrum of ice-ocean-atmosphere exchange hypotheses.

Terrestrial Analogs: The development of successful measurement approaches and data interpretation techniques for exploring Europa and understanding its habitability will need to leverage knowledge of analogous terrestrial environments and processes. Towards this end, we are investigating, and considering for future investigations, a range of terrestrial radio glaciological analogs for hypothesized physical, chemical, and biological processes on Europa and present airborne data collected with the UTIG/University of Kansas dual-frequency radar system over a variety of terrestrial targets relevant to Europa’s potential exchange processes and habitability. These targets include water filled fractures, brine rich ice, subglacial lakes, accreted marine ice, and ice roughness ranging from porous ice regolith (firn) to extensive crevasse fields. Our goal is to provide context for understanding and optimizing the observable signature of these processes in future radar data collected at Europa with implications for its habitability.

REASON Principal Investigator: Donald Blankenship
REASON Science Team members at UT: Duncan Young, Cyril Grima, and Krista Soderlund
REASON Science Verification and Validation Team from UT: Kristian Chan, Natalie Wolfenbarger, Christopher Gerekos, and Gregor Steinbrügge

Photo of Europa half shrouded in shadow

Biography: Donald Blankenship is a Research Professor at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG). He is an experienced researcher interested in the dynamic processes below, within and surrounding terrestrial ice sheets that control rapid changes in global sea level as well as sub-ice habitability across the solar system, particularly at Europa. Don has been PI and director for many multi-year Antarctic exploration programs incorporating aerogeophysical platforms. He has extensive experience with instrumentation, including multi-frequency radar, laser altimeters, magnetometers, gravity and GPS as well as both active and passive seismic instrumentation. His specialty is integrating these tools to produce the rich data sets required to address carefully posed hypotheses for the evolution of Earth’s ice sheets and ice shelves as well as understanding the formation of Europa’s dynamic surface geology using terrestrial analogs.

Additionally, Don has been an active member of NASA-sponsored Science Definition Teams (SDT) investigating missions to Europa since 1998. He was a member of the Europa Orbiter and Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter SDTs and served as the ice shell team lead for the Joint NASA/ESA Europa Jupiter System Mission SDT. In this role, Don has acted as an advisor on the implementation of orbital radar sounders as critical instrumentation for the exploration of Europa and the testing and validation of key hypotheses for processes controlling its habitability. Don is currently Principal Investigator for the Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) instrument, to be flown on NASA’s flagship Europa Clipper mission launching in October of 2024. Don is also a member of the Science Team for the Radar for Icy Moons Exploration (RIME) instrument aboard ESA’s Juice flagship mission launched in April of 2023 to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Over his career Don has published approximately 200 peer-reviewed papers receiving over 17,000 citations; he currently manages a large science group focused on fielding both fixed wing and rotary aircraft for internationally collaborative studies of both the Antarctic and Arctic as well as managing the orbital radar investigations at Europa.