Extraterrestrial oceans

Name: Hermes Jara Orué
Nationality: Peruvian
Supervisor: Dr Bert Vermeersen (Promoter: Professor Boudewijn Ambrosius)
Subject: Rotational variations of icy moons with subsurface water oceans
Thesis defense: In two years

“Below the ice sheet of icy-moons, is there life in the liquid oceans? If there is life on icy moons, does it share the same origin as life on Earth? Although far-reaching, these questions are the deep drivers of my research.

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Giant planets, whose orbits lie beyond the solar system’s frost line, such as Jupiter and Saturn, are known to have icy moons. Vast global oceans are thought to lie below the ice surface of some of these moons. For instance, all theories developed over the last 20 years hint towards the fact that on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is slightly smaller than our moon, a 100km deep ocean exists beneath tens of kilometers of ice. This represents twice as much water as on Earth! Since we believe that water is a precondition to life, the existence of oceans on icy moons means there might be extraterrestrial life.

Currently, we do not have direct ways to prove the existence of oceans in the interior of icy moons. My PhD research consists of developing a model of rotational variation on icy-moons. If an ocean lies between the rocky core and the icy surface of an icy moon, the rotation of the ice shell is expected to be slightly different from the rotation of the rocky core, owing to the decoupling effect of the ocean layer. From these rotational variations you can thus derive the internal structure of icy moons.

Designing a model was at times very challenging, especially because I had to go deep into geophysics, into a field which is not mine and which as an engineer was difficult to comprehend at first. Yet, when I finally got my model to work, I was very satisfied. Now, my remaining work consists of fine-tuning the model and calculating results. At the end of my PhD, I will however not be able to give a definite answer whether there are oceans on icy moons where life could exist.

But that is in a way part of the game in the study of icy moons. There is not a lot of data to start with. For instance, for Europa, we only have hints from a few satellite images. So you must make assumptions based on the work of others who also had to make some assumptions. And in the end, it’s still a model – nothing is confirmed. If there were to be a spacecraft mission to Europa, it wouldn’t happen for at least another 15 years, simply because missions are very costly and require lots of preparation.

Though this can sound a bit off-putting, getting one step closer in the quest for Life’s origin is motivating enough to me to continue being fascinated about this research.”

Tjeerd de Wit studeert life science & technology en woont in Sportschool Starlight De Bunker aan de Westerstraat. De Bunker verwijst naar het gebrek aan ramen. Zo heeft zijn kamer geen raam naar buiten. Een andere kamer is nog te herkennen als voormalig sauna van de sportschool. Er wonen zeven mannen, allen DSC-lid. Naast pils aanvullen, vuilniszakken buiten zetten, de telefoon beantwoorden en de deur open doen is de belangrijkste taak van de HJ dat hij veel thuis is en zorgt voor gezelligheid. Hij zit dus vaak in de GR, en als hij thuis is hoort zijn deur open te staan. Het verkeerspaaltje is bedoeld om de deur open te houden. De poster van Justin Bieber is vooral om zijn huisgenoten te stangen. Grote kans dat hij binnenkort door een huisgenoot van de muur wordt getrokken. 

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