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Virginia Tech alumna playing key role in upcoming NASA mission to Jupiter

Scientists want to discover if Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, can sustain life

A Virginia Tech alumna is part of a historic space mission to find out if there could be life on Jupiter.
A Virginia Tech alumna is part of a historic space mission to find out if there could be life on Jupiter.

At 5 years old, Dr. Laura Jones-Wilson knew exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up.

“I went to an Earth Day celebration and figured out what an Earth was and I was sold,” said Jones-Wilson.

Now, at 36 years old, she’s living her dream. She works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and is working on the first-ever dedicated mission to one of Jupiter’s moons: Europa. Scientists want to discover if Europa can sustain life. They believe it could be possible in an ocean underneath the moon’s icy surface.

“It has all the things we think you need for life. it has energy source,” said Jones-Wilson. “It has water. It has the right chemistry. And so there’s all of these things that make it a very interesting science target.”

The Europa Clipper, an unmanned spacecraft, will have 11 instruments to gather data, including how the density of the ice shell, the moon’s chemistry, geology, and recent activity.

Jones-Wilson is the payload verification and validation lead for the Europa Clipper. She is in charge of making sure the instruments work how they’re supposed to before the clipper heads to space.

“We definitely need to get this right. If we don’t, I mean, we’re not going to get the answers we want,” said Jones-Wilson.

Before landing her dream job, she got her start in Southwest Virginia. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2007 before attending Cornell University to earn her Ph.D.

“I was very lucky when I went into grad program, I was the most equipped and prepared I could have been financially and technically speaking because of my foundations at Tech,” said Jones-Wilson.

The mission’s been in the works for decades. The launch is set for 2024 or 2025. It’ll take about four years for the clipper to get to Europa. Then the mission itself will last three years. But Jones-Wilson said it’s coming up fast.

“It just seems like the blink of an eye in the whole history of this mission and it’s real now.”

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Jones-Wilson is now seven months pregnant. She hopes her little girl won’t be afraid to shoot for the stars and beyond.

“I hope she’s inspired by it,” said Jones-Wilson.

About the Author:

Lindsey joined the WSLS 10 team as a reporter in February 2019 and is thrilled to call Roanoke her new home!