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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 12, 2009

Photos: (left) Scott Bounds is conducting rocket experiments at Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks, Alaska, to better understand the northern lights. (Right) Don Kirchner is testing ice-penetrating radar at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in preparation for a future NASA study of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

UI researchers go to the ends of the Earth for January studies

You might think that those University of Iowa researchers who must travel to conduct their studies would journey to warmer climes during the winter. But that isn't the case for several staff members of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Department of Physics and Astronomy.

January finds three UI researchers at opposite -- and very cold -- ends of the Earth. Don Kirchner, research engineer, and William Robison, engineer III, are at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, where it is summer, while Scott Bounds, associate research scientist, is at Poker Flat Research Range, just north of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Kirchner and Robison are testing a new ice-penetrating radar designed to study the icy crust of Jupiter's moon, Europa, aboard a potential NASA mission being considered for launch in 2020, while Bounds is preparing a pair of sounding-rocket experiments to study Earth's auroras.

All three departed on New Year's Day for geographic locales and at a time of the year that is important to their work, according to Bill Kurth, UI research scientist in the department who works with the trio.

The Earth's poles aren't just an interesting place to conduct research; rather, they are the only places where the two research activities can be properly conducted.

First, the project involving ice-penetrating radar will be flown in an airplane over the Antarctic ice sheet to measure its depth as a means of verifying the radar's performance before it is deployed to outer space to study Europa. As a bonus, Kirchner says, these measurements will provide new information on Antarctic outlet glaciers relevant to ice melting and sea level rise.

The instrument is designed to withstand the rigors of the environment at Europa, which is thought to have a liquid ocean lying beneath a crust of ice measuring between six and 20 miles thick. The long-wavelength radar may also be useful on missions to Saturn's moons Enceladus -- which spews water vapor and ice, suggesting a surface similar to that on Europa -- and Titan.

Kirchner said that the presence of liquid water is thought to be a necessary requirement for life. Consequently, the discovery of liquid water elsewhere in the solar system is of intense interest to astrobiologists, who are interested in knowing whether there might be other locations in the solar system where life might arise.

The new radar is actually an advanced version of a UI-built radar transmitter used in the MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) instrument on the Mars Express spacecraft currently in orbit at Mars. It has been used to measure the depth of the polar ice caps as well as look for evidence of liquid water beneath the surface.

The experiment being conducted in the arctic is no less interesting than the radar project.

Called ACES (Auroral Current and Electrodynamics Structure), the rocket experiment uses two suborbital rockets plus ground-based measurements to make simultaneous measurements of the electrical currents associated with the aurora borealis or northern lights. This configuration allows Bounds and his team to understand where the auroral currents flow and how they are related to the magnetosphere above the aurora, the ionosphere where the auroras occur, and the upper atmosphere called the thermosphere.

The rocket experiments will measure currents, auroral charged particles, and electric and magnetic fields in the auroras, directly, while ground-based measurements remotely image the auroras and record changes in the magnetic field as well as providing the variation in the density of the plasma (a thin gas of electrically charged particles) and its temperature over a range of altitudes. Bounds said that the ACES launch window opens on Jan. 14 and closes Feb. 5, although he hopes that he won't have to wait that long to launch the rockets.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,