Britney E SchmidtScience Team EPO Liaison, NASA's Dawn Mission, Institute for Geophysics
I currently spend the vast majority of my time studying Europa, but I also have a keen interest in ice wherever else it is found, which is what brought me to Austin. It is truly a pleasure to come to a vibrant research program at UTIG to gain new perspective on the Earth and planets.
Most recently I am studying the formation of Europa's chaos terrain, which may harbor evidence that the moon is still active, implying that ice shell overturn may be delivering critical ingredients for life to the sub surface ocean. I compare observations of Europa with terrestrial analogues in order to gan new perspective on this intriguing icy moon.
My goal has always been to work on missions to the outer solar system, particularly to Europa. The small icy bodies in the solar system are also critically important both to the study of the evolution of water in the solar system and as potentially viable habitats. Comets may have played a role in the delivery of water and organics to the Earth. There is building evidence for water and ice in the asteroid belt, in Ceres, on Themis, on Pallas and in main belt comets. The oceans of outer planet satellites combine water, organics and energy sources that may make it possible for life to evolve. The most compelling example is Europa, which combines a watery environment and potential sources of thermal and chemical energy. As such, Europa is probably the most likely site in the solar system to harbor extraterrestrial life.
I have been working towards a career in studying icy bodies from an astronomical/geophysical perspective, but it is the synergy of these tools with biological sciences that will prove most fruitful for discovering whether there is life beyond Earth. As an undergraduate, I studied cometary D-H fractionation in the laboratory in order to understand the role that comets may have played in early solar system biospheres. I also worked on a team studying how loading by the ice ridge complexes on Europa gives us a tool for understanding the thickness of the ice shell. For my dissertation, I studied potential water bearing asteroids with space and ground-based telescopes and theoretical models, in association with the Dawn mission.
The next step in my work to understand and explore the evolution and habitability of water worlds in the solar system is working with Don Blankenship's group to learn as much as I can about Earth’s frozen environments. I am working to help develop the radar system that will fly on a future Europa mission, and to test this system on Earth analogue sites. I view the IPR system as the best tool for astrobiology on the upcoming mission as it will be able to seek out habitable regions in and below the ice shell, as well as characterize for the first time the cycling of the ice that may deliver biologically relevant compounds to the ocean. Hence I am ecstatic to be a part of the active cryosphere studies here at UTIG.
Areas of Expertise
Europa, Vesta, Pallas, Ceres, small bodies, icy moons, rotational dynamics