Published: May 5, 2017

Europa space probe wins international recognition

As solar system destinations go, Europa is as tantalizing as it is inhospitable. The smallest of Jupiter’s four moons is encased by a miles-thick icy shell and bombarded with radiation levels fatal to any human.

But scientists also believe that a vast liquid ocean may exist deep beneath the harsh exterior, raising the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life.

So naturally, when Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. approached CU Boulder aerospace undergraduates with the idea of modeling a probe that could alight on Europa’s surface (without the aid of landing gear), collect data, transmit information and survive the moon’s 80-hour orbit around Jupiter, all while using very little battery power, Gabe Frank and his classmates had one response: Challenge accepted.

"None of us had ever seen a space instrument built through from concept to design to testing before. You get snippets from classwork, but this was a chance to do something we've never done."

– Gabe Frank (AeroEngr'17)

“None of us had ever seen a space instrument built through from concept to design to testing before,” says Frank, a senior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado. “You get snippets from classwork, but this was a chance to do something we’ve never done.”
All aerospace seniors are required to complete a yearlong capstone design project sponsored by an outside company or research lab. But rather than mere hypotheticals, the projects are designed to solve real-world engineering problems.

“It is extremely cool to see this collaboration. These projects wouldn’t be possible without partners from Ball, Lockheed Martin and other companies taking an interest in our students and having confidence in them,” says Robert Marshall, an assistant professor in the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research who advised the student team.

The Europa Lander for Science Acquisition (ELSA) project was born from Ball’s desire to make cheaper, more versatile space probes. Instead of an expensive automobile-sized lander akin to the Mars Curiosity rover, the students were asked to design a less complicated probe that packaged sensors and transmitters into a volleyball-sized aluminum sphere. The team focused on building a tabletop prototype that would demonstrate the feasibility of fitting everything in—essentially, the guts of a satellite.

The nine-person team faced no shortage of technical obstacles, but after months of hard work, they submitted their prototype for competition at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Student Conference. The students won their regional division and later scored another victory at the organization’s international SciTech Forum.

“The wins speak to the high standards that our professors held us to. Everything we submitted was looked at very critically, from first concepts to final presentations,” Frank says. “We just tried to meet or exceed those standards everywhere.”

Frank is completing his master’s degree and will graduate in May. He has already begun his job search and credits the ELSA project management experience with landing him a recent interview at an aerospace firm.

“These kinds of skills are highly valued by the industry,” Frank says. “Classwork is great, but it’s different from what’s expected in the workplace. Companies are looking for candidates who have this hands-on experience.”