Scientists Jake Shaffer and Jared Clance collect samples on the Juneau Icefield earlier this month as part of a collaborative project between NASA and the Juneau Icefield Research Program. Participants hope the data and techniques will aid an upcoming mission to study the Jupiter ice moon Europa. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

Scientists Jake Shaffer and Jared Clance collect samples on the Juneau Icefield earlier this month as part of a collaborative project between NASA and the Juneau Icefield Research Program. Participants hope the data and techniques will aid an upcoming mission to study the Jupiter ice moon Europa. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

Juneau Icefield may be key to unlocking secrets of Jupiter ice moon

Researchers probe far beneath ice for clues to aid their search for extraterrestrial life

For researchers looking to unravel the mysteries of Jupiter’s moon Europa, a resource has emerged as a potential key to unlocking if the moon is habitable — the Juneau Icefield.

A team on the icefield is probing the thick frozen surface and water beneath, trying to simulate a future mission to the ice moon of Jupiter to search for signs of life and other data. Europa harbors an immense saltwater ocean beneath its icy exterior, for instance, but researchers say figuring out how to penetrate 15 miles of ice requires some technological development.

“We needed an environment with deep ice with water at the bottom,” said Samuel Howell, a project staff scientist for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is preparing the launch of a mission in October of 2024. “When looking around for these types of places, we were put in contact with (the Juneau Icefield Research Program).”

While the mission won’t directly land on or orbit Europa — which is approximately the size of Earth’s moon — due to its intense radiation environment, it is a crucial step toward understanding the moon’s potential habitability, Howell said. He is also the principal investigator of NASA’s Ocean Worlds Reconnaissance and Characterization of Astrobiological Analogs (ORCAA) project, which is collaborating with JIRP.

The ORCAA analog mission is attempting to access a subglacial lake in the Juneau Icefield with a planetary “cryobot” to simulate a potential future mission to Europa. By utilizing cryobot technologies researchers plan to sample melted glacial ice and liquid subglacial reservoirs to understand the interplay of energy, materials and organisms within the icy ecosystems.

Researchers gather at a camp and data-collection site on the Juneau Icefield earlier this month during a project intended to aid with the study of the Jupiter ice moon Europa. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

Researchers gather at a camp and data-collection site on the Juneau Icefield earlier this month during a project intended to aid with the study of the Jupiter ice moon Europa. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

JIRP: A partnership in planetary exploration

JIRP’s expertise and research infrastructure provide valuable support, Howell said. Specifically, JIRP’s Camp 10, situated near a temperate ice basin, shows promising signs of an unexplored subglacial reservoir. This basin, near a supraglacial lake inhabited by photosynthetic life, presents an excellent opportunity to study the hydrologic and geologic interactions that shape habitable niches within planetary icy environments, he said.

Through the partnership with JIRP — an eight-week immersion where undergraduate, graduate, and high school juniors and seniors traverse from Juneau to Atlin, British Columbia — students will participate in sampling and simulated mission activities.

“JIRP students are motivated to learn about how we use ice as a system of studying and understanding our Earth,” said Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist, educator and Antarctic researcher who is working on the mission. “When we think about space exploration it really takes a commitment of generations, so it’s a real natural thing to integrate with a student learning program.”

JIRP operates by having science teams develop their plans as part of the overall program, and students then have the opportunity to participate in the research, working alongside experienced scientists, said Seth Campbell, director of academics and research at JIRP.

Campbell said one of the key aspects of JIRP’s involvement is collecting geophysical data using ground-penetrating radar. This technology allows researchers to analyze ice thickness and observe reflections at the bottom of the ice, potentially indicating the presence of subglacial lakes.

“This gives them real hands-on science experience, as opposed to talking about what you might do,” he said. “The students will actually be able to process and analyze data with us in real time.”

A drill penetrates well below the surface of the Juneau Icefield as researchers study water hundreds of meters beneath earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

A drill penetrates well below the surface of the Juneau Icefield as researchers study water hundreds of meters beneath earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

Beneath the icy surface

While the Europa Clipper mission focuses on exploring Europa’s habitability, it also poses the question of how to access the ocean beneath the icy shell.

At the heart of this project is the University of Washington Ice Diver, a proven melt probe that will be used to access the subglacial reservoir. Equipped with enhanced water jetting and sample pumping systems, the Ice Diver will penetrate the ice to significant depths, allowing for the collection of valuable samples and data. The drilling process involves melting snow, which acts as a drilling fluid. The water is heated and pressurized, effectively pasteurizing it, so the process is clean, as the water used is filtered and any potential contaminants are left behind.

However, it’s been a while since the drill has been used. Jacob Holmes, a mountain guide, scientist and veteran, rehabilitated the drill, which was originally built in the 1980s and had been sitting on an airstrip under a tarp for the past 23 years.

“It’s this really old manual operation analog tool that’s giving us the opportunity to use all these amazing technologies and conduct really high-level research,” he said. “It’s this mix of an antique thing with emerging science.”

The drill’s unexpected rediscovery has reshaped the researchers’ plans.

“We were very surprised this drill exists,” Howell said. “We were going to collect some snow and Jill was going to take a nice swim in a lake with the biology. And then it turns out, you know, we can get down to the bottom of the ice and actually see what it’s like a year early.”

The team plans to simulate a condensed planetary reservoir access mission. By closely observing changes in the physical environment, habitability and concentrations of biological communities, they aim to determine the indicators of life within these icy environments.

But the journey to discover extraterrestrial life is no easy feat. Mikucki said drilling a hole for studies of biology is still in its relative infancy because it hasn’t been done much.

“Detection — or drilling through ice — is still something that’s challenging, despite the fact that we’ve got all this technology that we’ve usually used for paleoclimate or glaciological studies,” she said.

Scientists Jake Shaffer and Jared Clance, along with field mountaineer Brian Muller, collect water samples from an air-water interface on the Juneau Icefield earlier this month. Researchers are studying the bottom of the water table at bedrock — 272 meters down — and doing a biochemical analysis for elements such as major ions, dissolved organic carbon and biomolecules. Such data may provide links about connections between the top and bottom of the water table. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

Scientists Jake Shaffer and Jared Clance, along with field mountaineer Brian Muller, collect water samples from an air-water interface on the Juneau Icefield earlier this month. Researchers are studying the bottom of the water table at bedrock — 272 meters down — and doing a biochemical analysis for elements such as major ions, dissolved organic carbon and biomolecules. Such data may provide links about connections between the top and bottom of the water table. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Holmes)

Life on Europa: A Paradigm Shift in our Understanding of Habitability Beyond Earth

The discoveries made by Europa Clipper could revolutionize the perception of Earth’s place in the cosmos, inspiring further exploration of icy worlds within our solar system and beyond.

Scott M. Perl, co-principal investigator of the mission, is a research scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory who specializes in life in extreme environments and their preservation within the mineral and rock record. He said having the necessary ingredients for life does not guarantee its existence.

“Just because you have all the ingredients for life…doesn’t mean that life is there,” he said. “It has to be chemically driven. It has to have the right habitat, the right food and a stable environment over a long period of time for life to exist.”

The Europa Clipper is one of NASA’s outer planets flagship missions, with only three occurring previously, according to Howell. Such missions are motivated by compelling scientific reasons, which in the case of Europa Clipper involves the discovery of Europa’s global subsurface ocean. He further emphasized Europa’s subsurface ocean, estimated to be about 3.5 billion years old, sets it apart and makes it a prime candidate for investigating habitability beyond Earth.

The mission’s objectives go beyond merely confirming the existence of an ocean. Scientists are aiming to study Europa’s habitability and potential for sustaining life.

“For a long time, our understanding of habitability has been Earth-centric,” Howell said. “We believed that habitable planets must resemble Earth… But if places like Europa can support the emergence of life on their own, without any assistance from us, it opens up the possibilities of habitability in unexpected places.”

The implications of discovering life on Europa would be profound, challenging many such preconceived notions, he said.

“Even cold, seemingly dead worlds in other solar systems, with moons like Europa, could host life,” Howell said. “This realization expands our perspective on where life could exist and suggests that life might be more abundant throughout the universe.”

• Contact Therese Pokorney at therese.pokorney@juneauempire.com.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 13

Here’s what to expect this week.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Saturday, July 13, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Friday, July 12, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, July 11, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Residents of Strasbaugh Apartments on Gastineau Avenue and others in the neighborhood wait outside a sealed-off area Sunday morning after a landslide triggered by heavy rain hit the building. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Landslide triggered by heavy rain damages apartment building on Gastineau Avenue

Officials close street as multiple mudslides reported; up to 4” more rain forecast by Monday night.

Shelley McNurney (right) and Tami Hesseltine examine a muticolor storage shelf in the gym of the former Floyd Dryden Middle School on Saturday, where surplus items from the school were being sold to residents and given away to nonprofit entities. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
No more pencils, no more bookshelves: Floyd Dryden works to clear out surplus items large and small

Furniture, microscopes, pianos among gymful of items being given away or sold by shut-down school.

Former President Donald Trump is surrounded by Secret Service agents at a campaign rally in Butler, Pa, on Saturday. Trump was rushed off stage at rally after sounds like shots; the former president was escorted into his motorcade at his rally in Butler, Pa., a rural town about an hour north of Pittsburgh. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Trump rally shooting investigated as assassination attempt; gunman identified

One rally attendee and the shooter dead, two other spectators critically injured.

Looking like a gray turtle, an automated mower cuts grass in front of Thunder Mountain Middle School with boxes stacked in a classroom window beyond. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)
Random adventures of robo-mowers…now performing again this summer at Juneau’s schools

Four pillow-sized bots resembling turtles with tiny razor-sharp blades provide class for the grass.

Disney Williams (right) orders coffee from Lorelai Bingham from the Flying Squirrel coffee stand at Juneau International Airport on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New coffee stand at airport stirs up heated dispute about having proper authorization to operate

Fans of Flying Squirrel Espresso praise location, hours; officials say FAA violations could be costly.

Most Read