It all comes back to the human imagination and curiosity and just getting captivated by looking up at the night sky as a young kid. I grew up in a small town in Vermont and had the great fortune to be exposed to a beautiful night sky.
Kevin Hand, astrobiologist
Kevin Hands work with Cosmos Education may seem far removed from his work as an astrobiologist, but he says the organization is simply encouraging the next generation of science teachers, doctors, and scientists. Cosmos Education works primarily with schools in Kenya and Zambia to foster critical thinking skills across a wide variety of scientific disciplines. The hands-on activities may include studies on HIV/AIDS care and prevention, basic chemistry labs, and even lessons on how soap is manufactured.
"It's important to Cosmos Education that local leaders guide the program. I'm a white guy from the United States, the poster boy of [contemporary] science," Kevin says. "Local mentors can provide better leadership. Their stories, about what they do and how they got there, help students see themselves succeeding in these fields."
By Stuart Thornton
Monday, October 24, 2011
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Kevin Hand has traveled to the extremes of the Earth to better understand how life might exist in outer space.
Hand, the deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has spent time on Battleship Promontory, Antarctica, traveled far north to Barrow, Alaska, and been deep in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. If life can exist in these frigid places, he reasons, it might also exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example.
“One big-picture aspect is understanding the constraints of habitability for life as we know it,” Hand says. “So we study and understand the limits of habitability here on Earth, so that we can better identify and explore potentially habitable environments elsewhere, whether that’s Europa or Mars or Enceladus.”
But even a cold day in Antarctica doesn’t reach the temperature of Europa, at -173 degrees Celsius (-280-degree Fahrenheit).
“No place on Earth compares to the surface of Europa,” Hand says.
So scientists are hoping to study the moon up close. NASA is currently planning a mission to Europa and three other moons of Jupiter. Hand helps design spacecraft and equipment for the mission, and he tests some early versions of these tools in Earth’s extreme regions.
“When we go out into these environments, we also use some of the tools and techniques that are being developed or deployed on the spacecraft, and that will provide the data for us when we land rovers and spacecraft on these worlds,” he says. “The approach is sort of twofold from understanding the limits of life on Earth and understanding how to utilize the techniques and technology to study that life both here and beyond.”
One of Hand’s most fruitful expeditions found him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Hand descended in a submersible to investigate a unique underwater feature known as the “Lost City.” The “city” is actually a collection of carbonate towers that looks like a cathedral. Carbonate is a material produced as seawater interacts with vent fluid ejected by the region’s hydrothermal vents.
More than a kilometer beneath the surface of the ocean, where light does not reach, bacteria in Lost City cannot use photosynthesis to create energy. They use a process called chemosynthesis, which uses materials found in vent fluid.
Hand believes places like Lost City can provide valuable clues about how life might exist on Europa. The moon is covered in ice, and scientists think there is a liquid ocean beneath its crust. Light and photosynthesis would not be available to life on Europa.
“The exciting aspect of hydrothermal vents in the context of astrobiology is that there are ecosystems operating independent or not directly powered by photosynthesis,” he says. “They are utilizing chemosynthesis at the base of the food chain.”
Places like Lost City also help Hand determine where to begin looking for life on Europa.
“If Europa is being tugged and pulled and squeezed through the tidal interaction with Jupiter, then there’s good reason to believe that the seafloor of Europa might be somewhat active and may host some hydrothermal vents,” he says. “And if Europa has hydrothermal vents, that’s a great place for providing the chemistry needed for life. So those would be the types of environments that we would want to go and explore.”
The possibility of liquid oceans on Europa and Enceladus has spurred scientists to focus on the two moons in their search for life in outer space.
“If we have learned anything about life on Earth,” Hand says, “it’s that where you find water, you generally find life.”
Hand believes Europa holds the best possibility of life.
“When we think of priorities of next missions, I champion Europa because I think the science of Europa is mature,” he says. “We understand Europa quite well in terms of the geophysical models and the reason why it has an ocean.”
Hand says Europa seems to have a lot of water, despite its relatively small size.
“Europa is quite a bit smaller than the Earth, but the 100-kilometer-deep liquid water ocean ends up containing two to three times the volume of all the liquid water on Earth,” he says.
Even if NASA launches a probe to Europa in 2020, it would take another eight years for the spacecraft to reach the moon. But Hand puts the seemingly long wait into perspective.
“When you think about it on our day-to-day scale, it seems like a long time,” he says. “But when you think about the history of humanity and how long humans have been asking this question, it’s really the blink of an eye. It’s quite exciting that I’m alive during the time period when we have the technological capability to go out and not just ask these questions but also potentially answer them.”
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry astrobiologist Noun
person who studies the possibility of life in outer space.
bacteria Plural Noun
(singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.
ability to perform a task.
carbonate adjective, noun
mineral created by the action of carbon dioxide on a base.
important regional church.
process by which some microbes turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates using energy obtained from inorganic chemical reactions.
large settlement with a high population density.
limitation or obstacle.
data Plural Noun
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
to move military troops, support personnel, and equipment.
our planet, the third from the Sun. The Earth is the only place in the known universe that supports life.
Encyclopedic Entry: Earth ecosystem Noun
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem eject Verb
to get rid of or throw out.
Emerging Explorer Noun
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
moon of the planet Saturn.
capacity to do work.
tools and materials to perform a task or function.
moon of Jupiter.
journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.
extreme environment Noun
ecosystem whose characteristics make it difficult to support life.
food chain Noun
group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.
Encyclopedic Entry: food chain frigid Adjective
good and beneficial results.
having to do with geology and the physics of the Earth and its atmosphere.
suitability to support life.
related to hot water, especially water heated by the Earth's internal temperature.
water in its solid form.
Encyclopedic Entry: ice Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Noun
NASA center that focuses on robotic exploration of the solar system.
largest planet in the solar system, the fifth planet from the Sun.
Lost City Noun
field of hydrothermal vents along the seafloor near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
fourth planet from the sun, between Earth and Jupiter.
adult member of a species who is able to reproduce.
Mid-Atlantic Ridge Noun
underwater mountain range that runs from Iceland to Antarctica.
natural satellite of a planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: moon NASA Noun
(acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) U.S. agency responsible for space research and systems.
living or once-living thing.
outer space Noun
space beyond Earth's atmosphere.
process by which plants turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into water, oxygen, and simple sugars.
any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
Encyclopedic Entry: region rover Noun
vehicle that remotely explores a region, such as the surface of a moon, planet, or other celestial body.
sixth planet from the sun.
surface layer of the bottom of the ocean.
salty water from an ocean or sea.
solar system Noun
the sun and the planets, asteroids, comets, and other bodies that orbit around it.
vehicle designed for travel outside Earth's atmosphere.
to encourage or move forward.
small submarine used for research and exploration.
method of doing something.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.
Encyclopedic Entry: temperature tidal interaction Noun
mutual gravitational attraction of two bodies.
instrument used to help in the performance of a task.
having two parts or layers
one of a kind.
worth a considerable amount of money or esteem.
huge and spread out.
crack in the Earth's crust that spews hot gases and mineral-rich water.
vent fluid Noun
chemicals ejected by hydrothermal vents.
space an object occupies.