Dartmouth Engineering Receives $1.25m from NASA to Study Space Ice

The role and distribution of impurities in ice-ocean world geophysical processes. A) Salt/brine rich regions may be heterogeneously distributed within ice shells and associated with distinct geomorphological and geophysical features and processes (fractures, lenses, tectonics, cryovolcanism). Insets: the role interstitial brine plays in characterizing hydrologic regions within the shell (A1) and the entrainment of ocean-derived impurities at the ice-ocean interface (A2). Akin to magmatic and petrologic processes, even a small fraction of melt could have significant impacts on ice shell geophysical processes.

An engineering lab at Dartmouth has been awarded two grants totaling $1.25 million to conduct planetary science research relating to the geophysics and astrobiology of icy planets in our solar system. The research could lead to clues about the nature of the icy planets’ inaccessible interiors and support future space travel to these planets.

“Given the importance of ice-ocean worlds in our search for life beyond Earth, understanding the geophysics of planetary ices is incredibly important in determining how these worlds work, how habitable they are, and how we will interpret measurements taken by future missions. However, we currently only have a limited understanding of how compositionally diverse ices evolve and behave,” said Dartmouth Engineering research scientist & Science-PI Jacob Buffo.

“The ubiquity of icy worlds in our solar system is becoming increasingly apparent,” said Colin Meyer, assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth. “Understanding these systems is a top priority in the planetary science community, and our research will provide an invaluable tool to support this work.”

A grant for $750,000 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) will support research into the biogeochemistry of planetary ices, complex ice/brine/sediment systems, and ice interactions with spacecraft materials.

Using terrestrial analog environments and laboratory experiments, the team will quantify the physical, chemical, and material properties of a suite of diverse planetary ice analogs, which will provide a novel catalogue valuable to the Earth science and planetary science communities. In addition, the researchers will develop numerical models, benchmarked against the catalogue, that aim to predict the geophysical and astrobiological dynamics and evolution of ice-ocean worlds across the solar system.

The team will collaborate with researchers at the University of New Hampshire, the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Dartmouth’s Earth sciences department on the project, “Low-Temperature Comparative Planetology: Pore-Scale Dynamics with Planetary Scale Implications.”

An additional $500,000 grant from the NASA Solar System Workings (SSW) program will fund a detailed geochemical investigation into ice cores grown from five distinct chemistries – representing potential icy world oceans – that will enable predictive simulation of the thermophysical and geochemical evolution of icy planetary systems. The Dartmouth Engineering team will work with researchers at Cornell University and The Open University.

Dartmouth’s SSW proposal, “The Cryopetrology of Ice Shells: How to Judge a Book by Its Cover,” was one of 253 that NASA received; only 47 were selected for funding.

“As an early career researcher, it is incredibly exciting to have two proposals you’ve led get funded and to see your ideas for interesting scientific investigations become a reality. I’m incredibly thankful for the teams of co-investigators on both grants as these types of cross-disciplinary projects truly take a village to carry out,” said Buffo.

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