The University Record, December 4, 2000

Research team competes for $75 million NASA grant

By Patricia Majher
College of Engineering

This photograph, taken from the Hubble Space Telescope, shows Jupiter's volcanic moon Io (and its shadow) passing above the planet. Photo courtesy NASA
Approximately 18 months from now, research scientist John Clarke and co-investigators from the University of Colorado (CU) hope to begin work on a $75-million NASA-funded mission designed to study the connections between Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io. Earlier this year, the team of astrophysicists submitted a proposal for an orbital observatory they call Jupiter Magnetospheric Explorer (JMEX) to NASA’s Small Explorer and Missions of Opportunity Program. JMEX was recently chosen as one of seven finalists from a field of 46 possible projects.

In the next and final phase, the U-M/CU research team will use a $450,000 “Phase A” award from NASA to prepare a more detailed project proposal. Work on the proposal will begin in 2001 and will continue for six months. Ultimately, two projects will be selected for full funding, with NASA expected to make its final decision in April 2002. If JMEX is chosen, the launch date could be as early as April 2006.

In essence, JMEX will consist of a high-resolution telescope that can observe ultraviolet wavelengths with a sensitivity comparable to that of the Hubble Space Telescope. Fixed continuously on Jupiter and Io, one of the planet’s four largest moons, JMEX will observe the Jovian aurora, the charged particle belts surrounding the planet, and the extended atmosphere of the moon Io. It will orbit at a height of 900 kilometers for approximately two years, collecting data on a continuous basis and relaying the information to Earth.

As one of the solar system’s “giant planets,” Jupiter is 318 times larger than Earth. Io, one of its 15 moons, is the site of nearly 300 volcanoes, of which approximately two dozen are active at any one time. A continual electrodynamic interaction occurs between Io and Jupiter’s magnetosphere, leading to a variety of atmospheric phenomena.

Clarke, of the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, is one of two deputy principal investigators for the JMEX project. He notes that measurements of Jupiter’s magnetosphere and its connections with Io could have far-reaching practical applications.

“Our goal, scientifically, is to understand how all this works, to observe the aurora, the volcanoes, the materials swept away from Io,” Clarke says. “Once we have a continuous series of measurements, we can determine cause-and-effect relationships. Observing the connections between Io and Jupiter could significantly advance our understanding of Earth’s own upper atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind, which fills the space between planets. This activity results in the Northern Lights, but it also can produce extremely intense currents in the upper atmosphere capable of shutting down electrical power systems and interfering with spacecraft orbiting the earth.”

If the JMEX research team succeeds in its quest, it will mark only the second time that the U-M has been involved in an entire start-to-finish NASA mission. Led by principal investigator Nicholas Schneider of the University of Colorado in Boulder and deputy principal investigators Fran Bagenal, also of CU, and Clarke, the research team would be responsible for every aspect of the project: building the satellite, telescope and instruments; launching the spacecraft; controlling its activity; and analyzing data. To accomplish this immensely complex task, the JMEX team plans to collaborate with a number of academic institutions and corporate entities, among them NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Southwest Research Institute, Observatoire de Paris, Lowell Observatory and Ball Aerospace. NASA would provide program oversight.

“The JMEX project represents a rare opportunity for the University community,” Clarke points out. “Being part of a full-scope NASA launch will enable faculty and students to learn a tremendous amount about managing every aspect of a space mission.”