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Britney E. Schmidt

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Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Texas at Austin
Institute for Geophysics
Austin, Texas 78712

Research Summary:
  • Habitability and Geophysics of Europa
  • Earth Analogs for Icy Moons
  • Ice in the Asteroid Belt & Early Solar System
  • DAWN Mission E/PO Science Liaison

Title 1: Europa in Our Backyard: Terrestrial Analogs for an Icy World

Abstract 1:

What might lie below Europa's enigmatic surface? How can we understand this unique environment and continue the search for life beyond Earth?

Europa's surface hints at the dynamics below it: this moon has been active, even recently so. It is a distinct possibility that water within or just below the ice shell on Europa plays a significant role in forming its surface. Water pockets in the ice shell may even act as transient abodes for life outside of the ocean below. Future Europa exploration will seek to characterize the distribution of shallow subsurface water both to understand Europa's geology, and to analyze its potential habitability.

To prepare for exploring Europa, we must leverage analogous terrestrial environments and techniques. Ice penetrating radar is a mature tool in studies of Earth’s cryosphere, and orbital examples have been successfully deployed at Mars. Radar sounding will be a critical tool at Europa because of its unique ability to image dynamics and search for water, revealing the three-dimensional context of features. Accordingly, radar should be of primary interest to the astrobiology community for understanding how and where life might arise on Europa.

In this talk, we will explore environments on Europa and their analogs on Earth. These analogs are distributed across the globe, from collapsing Antarctic ice shelves to polythermal glaciers in Norway, to subglacial volcanos across Earth's cryosphere. We will demonstrate the power of ice penetrating radar in understanding icy environments and imaging potential habitats. Finally, we will show how lessons from Earth's cryosphere are shaping our current understanding of Europa.

Title 2: Astrobiology in the Asteroid Belt?

Abstract 2:

The asteroid belt represents a diverse collection of bodies that range from small, dry, rocky monoliths and rubble-pile remnants, to active main belt comets and large, icy protoplanets. Now through telescopic observation and theory, there is mounting evidence for both a rich history and current presence of ice (and potentially water) in many of the outer main belt bodies. As neighbors of the terrestrial planets, it is clear that these objects may have affected the habitability of the inner solar system through water delivery and impact cataclysms.

I will discuss the most recent detections of ice, activity and potential hydrospheres in the asteroid belt, models that are relevant to these observations, and the astrobiological significance of these intriguing small solar system bodies.

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