AUSTIN, TX (KXAN) — A new technique utilizing radar will soon be used on one of NASA’s biggest missions of the decade. The technique was developed by a University of Texas Ph.D. student, Kristian Chan. It was originally tested on melting ice caps on Earth to determine how climate change was impacting them.

“It’s piece of this larger picture of trying to understand how the ice on Earth is responding to a warming climate,” said Chan, who is also a graduate research assistant with UT’s Institute for Geophysics.

The technique uses two different radars, both operating at different frequencies, to scan the shallow surface of ice caps. “One radar is sensitive to features down to about 10-12 meters, the other one, maybe about a few meters or so.”

By using two different radars, scientists are able to create a map of the subsurface. This map can locate pockets of frozen ice that are capable of redirecting melt water that moves through the ice cap.

The technique was tested off the coast of Canada on Devon Island. That ice cap is currently melting as a result of climate change. The results of his study were published this May in the scientific journal The Cryosphere

Chan was able to use his technique to map where meltwater has frozen beneath the surface, forming new layers of ice.

“If we understand kind of where these ice layers are, and also how thick they are, that kind of gives us an gives us an idea of where there’s meltwater, and where this melt water is going,” Chan said.

Kristian Chan will soon see his radar technique utilized on Europa., the icy surface of which (shown on the right) makes it challenging to scan with traditional systems. (Credit: Eric Henrikson/KXAN News)

Heading to Jupiter and Europa

Chan’s technique will be used aboard one of NASA’s big missions of the decade, the Europa Clipper mission.

“Every decade or two we send a flagship mission to the outer planets. And the there’s two flagship missions right now; one to Mars,” said Don Blankenship, senior research scientist at UT’s Institute for Geophysics. “But there’s another flagship mission to the outer planets, the ones outside of the asteroid belt.”

Blankenship was approached by NASA in 1998 to develop the radar system used aboard the Clipper mission. The radar system, called REASON, has two sets of antenna that use radar at different frequencies, perfect for using Chan’s technique.

Scientists study Europa because its one of two known bodies in the solar system to have an ocean. Covered in an icy shell, Europa orbits the volatile Jupiter nearly 500 million miles from Earth.

Many experts believe that if we’re going to find life in our solar system, it will be on Europa.

“Our radar is designed to test the hypothesis for how the stuff at the surface gets to the ocean, and how the stuff in the ocean gets to the surface,” Blankenship said. This mixture is likely needed to provided nutrients to organisms that would live in the ocean.

The Clipper is the size of a basketball court. Once it launches on October 10th, 2024, it will take six years to reach Europa.