“Most people don’t really think about dust, but it’s incredibly important in space. You can use it to sample the chemistry of planetary objects without landing. You can fly by and scoop up those dust grains without the expense and difficulty of landing on the object.”

zach ulibarri, ph.d.

In the outer reaches of our solar system, a frontier of discovery awaits on the icy moons circling Jupiter and Saturn. On board the forthcoming Europa Clipper mission is the Surface Dust Analyzer (SUDA), designed to sample dust grains and study the surface chemistry of Jupiter’s second largest moon. Dr. Zach Ulibarri’s name appears among those on the apparatus, which will someday intentionally crash into Jupiter and become part of its metal core.

Dr. Ulibarri’s meticulous experiments determined the speed limit for SUDA as it comes into contact with, collects, and studies organic molecules necessary for life. Understanding this limit is pivotal in the quest to uncover signs of life beyond Earth.

His current focus is on an instrument called the electrospray ionization mass spectrometer (ESI-MS)—which is the gold standard for studying biomolecules on Earth but doesn’t yet work in space. Dr. Ulibarri is adapting spacecraft propulsion sources that work in the vacuum of space to serve as an ESI-MS so that scientists can use this Nobel-prize winning technology to minimize damage to the delicate building blocks of life as they are studied in orbit. Such a device could also be easily miniaturized to conserve precious payload capacity aboard a spacecraft mission.

During his fellowship, Dr. Ulibarri will perfect the vacuum ESI-MS by probing its ideal operating characteristics and mechanisms. He will run experiments to test its capabilities to detect analog samples from ocean worlds. Dr. Ulibarri’s work promises to enable new molecular surveys that respond to high-priority questions in search of alien life.

Dr. Ulibarri received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Colorado in Spring 2022. After starting his 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, Dr. Ulibarri will continue his work as a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University.