By Randy Fiedler
Alyssa Mills, who is pursuing a PhD in geosciences at Baylor University, is one of 11 students nationwide chosen as a 2022 John Mather Nobel Scholar by the National Space Grant Foundation. The scholarships were established in 2008 by the John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts, and are presented to students who have demonstrated high academic achievement and who have a strong interest in space and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Winners receive a $3,000 travel allowance towards the cost of presenting research papers at professional conferences.
Mills spent the summer of 2022 completing an internship at the Goddard Center, which is a major NASA space research laboratory located near Washington, D.C. Her internship was in the Planetary Systems Laboratory, where she was the resident geophysicist on a team researching Europa, one of the 80 moons of the planet Jupiter, and the sixth-largest moon in the solar system.
“For my internship at Goddard, I was the geology expert on a team that was creating a machine learning model to automatically identify a geological terrain called chaos on Europa,” Mills said. “I first created their training dataset of the model through mapping the terrains, using Galileo spacecraft images. Then, I was designated to identify how well the machine model was performing in terms of accuracy by confirming or rejecting the model’s mapped identifications. Now, I am working on interpreting the model’s outputs to find if there are any trends in the data that may be give clues about the formation of this terrain.”
Mills said that it’s important to understand the geological landforms in the fractured ice regions on Europa known as chaos because it’s an area showing recent or current geological activity, and therefore provides a window into the processes occurring below the moon’s surface.
“We want to know about internal processes to understand the interactions of the subsurface ocean with the surface ice, as material exchange is important to the understanding of habitability –– a hot topic for Europa and other ocean worlds,” Mills said. She had studied Europa during three previous internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and the work she did this past summer at Goddard “could be a segue into a potential project I do as a doctorate student here at Baylor, since I may look at more of the fracture mechanics at these chaos terrains on Europa,” she said.
Dr. Conor Nixon, an astronomer and planetary scientist working in the Planetary Systems Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center, is the associate laboratory chief, and served as Mills’s mentor during her Goddard internship.
“Alyssa had to work remotely and virtually on her summer internship project, always a challenging environment, as NASA gradually emerges from a COVID-era lockdown,” Nixon said. “However, she did splendidly, and brought a ton of prior experience working with Europa data –– from her time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory –– to our team. It was really a boost to our new project, and we couldn’t have made as much progress as we did in a short amount of time without her help.”
Nixon said that the precision and organization Mills brought to her internship, and her love of space science, will serve her well in her career.
“Alyssa is clearly very enthused about the science of icy moons and the search for life in the solar system,” Nixon said. “I think she will really go far in her career, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of her PhD research at Baylor. It’s great to see that the future of planetary science is in such good hands, with terrific upcoming young scientists like her.”
Dr. Peter James, an assistant professor of geosciences who serves as Mills’s PhD advisor at Baylor, also has high praise for her research.
“Alyssa is exceptionally curious, which is a wonderful trait for a burgeoning scientist who studies distant worlds,” James said. “She is keenly interested in the ice-covered moons of the outer Solar System, and has already contributed substantially to our understanding of enigmatic regions called chaos terrains.”