BYU Professor Works on Project for NASA

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In recent years, astronomers have taken an interest in Mars. A BYU professor is part of a new space movement and is preparing a project for NASA.

Jani Radebaugh, assistant professor of geological science at BYU, has joined a team of scientists in a project to explore Saturn’s moon Titan.

Radebaugh, working with a team of about 30, has helped develop a plan to fly an unmanned airplane to Titan. The airplane will then take pictures of Titan. According to Radebaugh, the plane will get better pictures than are available now because the plan will be able to fly closer to the images instead of remaining in orbit as the cameras currently do.

Radebaugh said Titan is more similar to Earth than Mars because Titan has rivers, lakes and a similiar atmosphere. Because of Mars’ thin atmosphere, an airplane would be unable to fly. Titan, on the other hand, has a thicker atmosphere like Earth, allowing an airplane to fly more easily. While Titan is like Earth, matter does not behave the same there as it does on Earth, according to Radebaugh.

“Everything behaves differently because it’s cold,” she said.

Radebaugh became involved in the project because friends from graduate school were already working on it. Radebaugh said the friendship has helped the team work successfully.

“That friendship and understanding where our different strengths and weaknesses were helped us form a team that grew from there,” she said.

Ross Beyer, a member of the team from Sunnyville, Calif., is in charge of data analysis. While his expertise is not needed until the end of the project, he said being involved from the beginning of the project is still important.

“We kind of babysit the aircraft all the way through,” he said. “There’s a lot of steps that have to be taken.”

Beyer also spoke about the potential to get better images with the aircraft than with an orbiting camera.

“If we find something interesting [on the camera], we can decrease the altitude,” he said of the unmanned aircraft. He said the airplane not being in orbit would make taking pictures less restrictive than it is currently.

Jason Barnes, who has led the project, said he plans to propose the project to NASA.

“Each of these proposals has low probability [of being accepted],” he said, but remained optimistic. “I think some day something like this has a very good prospect of getting there [to Titan].”

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