Rensselaer Student To Explore Whether Jupiter Moon Can Support Life

May 13, 2024

Brianna Casey

Brianna Casey ’26 is one of 40 undergraduate students nationwide to be selected for NASA’s Europa ICONS (Inspiring Clipper: Opportunities for Next-Generation Scientists) internship program. The program supports the Europa Clipper mission, with the goal of determining whether Jupiter’s moon, Europa, has “conditions suitable to support life.” Scientists predict that an ocean lies beneath Europa’s icy shell, so massive that it is bigger than all of Earth’s oceans combined.

“This mission takes a profound step in our understanding of habitable environments beyond Earth,” said Casey. “I am honored to be a part of it.”

The program matches students with mentors for 10 weeks to conduct research. Casey will work with Kirtland Robinson, Ph.D., an assistant research scientist at Arizona State University. Together, they will develop a framework to use organic compounds expelled from the interiors of icy ocean worlds such as Europa and Enceladus to constrain their subsurface geochemistry and, thereby, assess their habitability. They will use a combination of hydrothermal experimental techniques, thermodynamic calculations, and kinetic modeling. The models will be applied to analyze the geochemical data collected by the Europa Clipper mission. The Clipper is being launched this October and will arrive at the moon in 2030 or beyond.

The program will include a two-day meeting at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. “I am looking forward to the amazing learning experience, connecting with other interns during our meeting at NASA JPL, and applying the skills gained from the laboratory work to my own hydrothermal chemistry research at RPI,” Casey said.

Casey has been a member of the research group of Kristin Johnson - Finn, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, since her freshman year, learning about Europa and its astrobiology potential. Through the group, Casey was made aware of internship opportunities, including NASA’s Europa ICONS, and was connected with Robinson. 

The internship program will run every year until Europa Clipper completes its prime mission in 2034. It is open to applications from all U.S. undergraduate STEM majors.


Written By Katie Malatino
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