Stanford University
Artist's rendition of Europa moon with spacecraft.

Space mission course explores ‘big science’ through new lens

Dustin Schroeder, an assistant professor of geophysics, challenges first-year students to dissect “big science” with the introductory seminar The Space Mission to Europa.

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockSeptember 13, 2018

Dustin Schroeder
Geophysicist Dustin Schroeder specializes in ice-penetrating radar that will be used on NASA's Europa Clipper mission. (Photo credit: Stacy Geiken)

Scientists are in the midst of planning NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to investigate one of the most likely places to harbor life outside Earth – and a handful of first-year Stanford students will be along for the ride.

By learning with one of the mission’s science team members, Stanford geophysicist Dustin Schroeder, freshmen in the introductory seminar The Space Mission to Europa can begin to grasp the magnitude of organizing a search for alien life on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“It felt a little like we were on the inside of things,” said Annabel Conger, ’21, who took the course autumn quarter 2017.It was such a great introduction to the Stanford environment.”

The Clipper space mission represents an endeavor in “big science” because it requires a large amount of money, equipment, and infrastructure, and a large team. In addition to the physics, chemistry, and biology required for space exploration, the mission offers a unique platform for engaging with the interplay of the natural and social sciences.

“Across all fields of science, management and social dynamics play a role,” said Schroeder, an assistant professor of geophysics at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “In business and other areas, people talk about it, but it applies to what we do in science as well. In the flagship mission context, it’s so much easier to see.”

Social underpinnings

The 16-student course is heavily discussion-based and Schroeder approaches his students as both a mentor and a thought collaborator. Having attended a liberal arts college, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Schroeder welcomes opportunities to think about the different philosophical and cultural approaches to doing science, he said.

“At the beginning of the course, when I explain that one of the things that affects our capacity to explore the solar system is social constructs and cultural dynamics, the students respond, ‘no way,’” Schroeder said. “They go through the course thinking it’s just about the science and engineering, and then eventually they realize the way people organize themselves plays such a big role – the mission is a fun concept in which to explore that.”

In addition to engaging with one-on-one and small-group conversations about the different ways an endeavor of this magnitude could be carried out, the students are responsible for presenting quarter-long projects about the mission. In 2017, when the course was first offered, the students traveled to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to present their work to a team of scientists and engineers on the Europa mission.

Real-world application

Students in The Space Mission to Europa course presented their research projects to Clipper mission scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 2017. (Photo credit: Dustin Schroeder) 

Mission-scale perspective

Their projects included analyses on the potential introduction of a new CubeSat thermal-imaging satellite and instruments that could land on Europa, an assessment of planetary protection measures to prevent biological contamination on the moon, and a report on communication and management approaches based on previous Mars and Saturn missions.

Zoe Von Gerlach, JP Spaventa, Andrew Ying and Professor Dustin Schroeder
Students from the Autumn 2017-18 The Space Mission to Europa received an IntroSem Excellence Award for their project, "Designing Space Mission Management Structures Through the Lens of Data Economies.” Pictured from left are Andrew Ying, Philosophy '21, professor Dustin Schroeder, Zoe Von Gerlach, Computer Science '21, and JP Spaventa, Physics '21. (Photo credit: Devon Ryan)

“One project scientist said he liked how the students had this broad exposure to the whole mission,” said Schroeder, who plans to bring the 2018 class to JPL as well. “Whereas the rest of us come in as part of just one instrument, they had a broader, more mission-scale perspective.”

For the students, that perspective came from diving into the mission as engineers, scientists, and leaders. For one assignment, Schroeder split up the class by instrument and the students calculated how to optimize their instrument for a specific terrain of Europa.

“At first I thought, ‘I don’t know enough to do this assignment,’” Conger said. “But he walked us through it, and it was extremely gratifying to do the actual calculations.”

Conger discussed how Schroeder introduced the class to back-of-the-envelope calculations, in which you use simplified assumptions to make a rough estimate to get a starting point for building an equation.

“This gave me the freedom to approach a problem that feels too monumental to begin with,” she said.

The course inspired Conger to take Schroeder’s graduate-level course, Ice Penetrating Radar, during her freshman year. Now she is considering a major in geophysics instead of biology, she said.

“Every single freshman should try to find an introductory seminar in something they’re interested in.”

Schroeder is a faculty affiliate with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and an assistant professor, by courtesy, of electrical engineering at Stanford. His Radio Glaciology research group works on the fundamental problem of observing, understanding, and predicting the interaction of ice and water in Earth and planetary systems. For more information about how Schroeder and other Stanford researchers are collaborating to understand the behavior, evolution, and stability of ice sheets, glaciers, and sea ice, visit Understanding Ice.

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