The potential for life on other planets has vexed scientists for ions. For astrobiologist Kevin Hand, it's an obsession that began when he was a sci-fi-crazed kid and is likely to consume him well into middle age.
To think of a life with such a singular purpose is both "exhilarating and depressing,'' says Hand, 41, a National Geographic emerging explorer.
"The pendulum swings both ways,'' he says. "The overwhelming amount of personal time is superseded by the long view of humanity, exploration, and discovery. What fascinates me is that we will do the exploration that revolutionizes our understanding of whether or not life on Earth is a biological singularity or if in fact we live in a biological universe. Ultimately, the search is a pretty optimistic endeavor.”
Europa has been thought to support life since data provided by Galileo spacecraft nearly a quarter century ago led scientists to believe that a massive saltwater ocean underneath its icy surface has hydrothermal zones, essential chemical elements, nutrients, and other ingredients similar to Earth's biologically rich seas.
“Europa's ocean is about two to three times the volume of all the liquid ocean on Earth,” Hand says. “So it's a beautiful place to explore whether there’s life elsewhere. We might discover some biochemical pathway, some other way that life gets the business of living done.
“When I speak of finding life in the solar system I mean microbial life. But finding even the smallest microbe would revolutionize biology.''
Hand's search for life beyond Earth has already taken him from ocean bottoms to Mount Kilimanjaro's glaciers, where he can gain an understanding of the planet’s harsh extremes to help better assess and investigate alien worlds like Europa. He's currently on a two-month expedition near the North Pole, part of a research team exploring Arctic sea ice and waters. Hollywood directors James Cameron and Ridley Scott have sought his advice for the sci-fi films Avatar and Prometheus.
NASA is planning to launch the orbiting space probe Europa Clipper in about 2022. Its aim is to provide high-resolution pictures and obtain data on its chemical composition and surface features. Hand hopes the Clipper could set the stage for a Europa landing by 2030.
And if the lunar probe—which Hand has tentatively nicknamed ELSA (Europa Landing Probe for Surface Astrobiology)—finds signs of life?
“I may leave that for the kids graduating school today,’’ he says.