Beyond Earth: The Quest for Life on an Icy Moon

March 21, 2024 Des Moines Civic Center
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Hear from NASA's Kobie Boykins about our moon's secrets and how that knowledge can help us predict what will happen here on Earth, and much more!

Kobie Boykins became an engineer because he wanted to be “that guy who figures out how to design and build things to function at their highest level.”  Well, he’s succeeded. Kobie is a principal mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where he has worked since graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In more than twenty-five years at the lab, he has worked on every Mars mission since the Pathfinder mission, which took the first Rover, “Sojourner,” to Mars in 1996.  Later, Kobie designed the solar arrays that powered the Mars Exploration Rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity.” Those Rovers landed in 2004 and were expected to perform for 90 days, but they lived for six years and fourteen years, respectively, sending images and data back to Earth and discovering that the surface of Mars once held water.

Next, Kobie led the mobility and remote sensing teams for Mars Science Laboratory rover, “Curiosity,” designing the actuators that powered the 7-ft. tall rover with a 7-ft arm that operates 10 different tools and 17 cameras, collecting rock, soil and air samples, taking photographs, and operating a laser.  Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral in November, 2011, and landed on Mars in August, 2012. This rover also outlived its predicted life and NASA extended its initial 2-year mission indefinitely.  As of May 2021, it continues to send back images and data.

In 2013, Kobie received a NASA Exceptional Service Medal, one of the highest honors given to NASA employees and contractors. Shortly after, he began his most ambitious project to date, serving as Chief Engineer on NASA's Europa Clipper mission, slated for 2024, which will send a radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of the icy moon. During the nominal mission, the spacecraft will perform 45 flybys of Europa at closest-approach altitudes varying from 1,700 miles to 16 miles above the surface.  The key question they seek to solve is whether the surface ice holds liquid water beneath it.  Where there’s water, there’s the capacity for life. When asked another reason why we need to know this, Kobie says, “From an engineering perspective, we now know Mars had liquid water on the surface, a lot like Earth.  Planetary evolution has caused that water to disappear.  We need to understand how that happened so that we ensure it doesn’t happen here on Earth.”

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