Studying sand to bridge the gap between Earth and space
By analyzing sand dunes on Earth, a BYU professor and her team are making groundbreaking discoveries about Saturn’s moons and God’s heavenly creations.
You can learn something from anyone and anything, even a small grain of sand. And education isn’t limited to our planet. As the principal investigator on multiple NASA grants and as an associate member of NASA’s Cassini Radar Science team, BYU geology professor Jani Radebaugh analyzes images of Earth-like bodies across the solar system. To better understand the heavens, she travels to the farthest reaches of the Earth and studies sands around the world. By studying sand dune formations on our planet, she is making discoveries about the environments of other locations in space, including Saturn’s moon Titan. She’s bridging a gap between heaven and earth.
For the bulk of her career, Radebaugh has studied Io, a colorful volcano-covered moon of Jupiter. Comparing temperatures and other features of volcanoes on Earth and Io, she and colleagues saw similarities. But, they’ve learned, the lavas on Io are far hotter and far faster to erupt than lavas on Earth. Io features vast lakes of lava, much as scientists believe Earth did billions of years ago. Radebaugh calls Io “a laboratory for an early Earth, . . . right around when life was getting started.” Looking at Io, she says, is “like looking back in time.”
She explains, “We want to be able to understand where else in the solar system life may have gotten started, and Titan is a really good candidate.” By studying dunes all around the world, Radebaugh and her team can compare Earth’s sands with Titan’s and learn how the moon’s geography has formed, what kinds of winds are present on the surface, and what the atmosphere is composed of. And for Radebaugh, it’s more than that: looking at Io speaks of the divine. “Just the beauty, the complexity, the strong history—that feels like evidence that there’s a Creator,” she says.
From exploring freezing Antarctica with her colleagues to journeying across the deserts of Egypt with her students, Radebaugh and her teams continue to research and analyze the marvelous formations on Earth, searching for connections of galactic proportions and increasing our knowledge of God’s divine creations throughout places and planets that surround us.
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