Banner image: Jupiter's icy moon Europa as seen by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)
In less than a decade, technology developed in Colorado will travel to Jupiter’s moon Europa—a cold moon where a thick crust of ice covering the surface obscures a potentially vast ocean of saltwater below.
That piece of Rocky Mountain technology is the Europa SUrface Dust Analyzer (SUDA). The more than $50 million instrument was designed and built by a team of scientists and engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). It’s part of NASA’s larger Europa Clipper mission, which will investigate the icy moon to determine if it has conditions that could support life.
LASP shipped SUDA this month to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, which leads the mission. SUDA and eight other scientific instruments are set to launch in October 2024 aboard the Europa Clipper spacecraft, beginning a nearly five-and-a-half-year journey to Jupiter. There, it will conduct multiple flybys of Europa.
“SUDA is a remarkable instrument designed and constructed by remarkable people,” said LASP Director Dan Baker. “It builds on our lab’s rich heritage of dust instrumentation while incorporating new technologies and techniques developed just for this mission. We can hardly wait to see SUDA’s first results.”
SUDA will be a key player in Europa Clipper’s quest, added Sascha Kempf, the instrument’s principal investigator.
The instrument’s sensor head, which is coated with an extremely thin layer of 99.99% gold, is about the size of a marching drum and weighs nearly 35 pounds. As Europa Clipper flies by the moon, SUDA will collect and analyze particles ejected from the moon’s surface by tiny meteorites. JPL scientist and SUDA co-investigator Murthy Gudipati compared the instrument to a shark swimming with its mouth open. Scientists can also use data from the instrument to track where on the surface those particles launched from.
“We will collect material from the surface, and we will do that without ever landing on the surface,” said Kempf, an associate professor at LASP and the Department of Physics at CU Boulder.
It’s also a monumental achievement for the dozens of researchers at LASP who have toiled since 2015, through a historic pandemic, to make the instrument a reality.