Europa and Undersea Divers

Categories: Europa Feature Stories

Fieldwork with Kevin Hand

SETI Institute astrobiologist Kevin Hand describes the universe as a work of art and science as the brush strokes that create it. The analogy emerges as Hand grasps for a connection between the many endeavors in which he is involved. The young scientist’s life itself is much like a broad and vividly painted canvas, filled with a richness of experience that belies his youth.

Just this summer, the Stanford Ph.D. student–who is not yet thirty–has: traveled across rural Africa this summer with an educational non-profit he established; attended a special summer program in marine biology where he learned hands-on laboratory techniques; and joined research expeditions to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, where he dove to the sea floor in a submersible to explore the exotic hydrothermal vent systems that offer clues to life’s origins.

As a child, Kevin Hand knew he wanted to explore the universe, perhaps as an artist (he still paints watercolors) or more likely as a scientist. As a child growing up in Vermont, the future astrobiologist enjoyed camping and hiking and often fell asleep under rich, black skies, lit by the Milky Way. His early experiences with the outdoors and the stars of the northern hemisphere coupled with the admiration he felt for his older brother, who "was always reading science books and talking about interesting science topics," profoundly shaped his future interests. Hand recalls the powerful influence of Carl Sagan’s books and the popular television series, Cosmos, which he explains, connected his direct experience of the natural world with the science that explained it.

Writing a paper for an advanced high-school biology class broadened Hand’s knowledge of the field that would come to be called astrobiology. "I wrote about life on Mars, Europa, the solar system, and searching for planets around other stars." His research introduced him to papers written by scientists familiar to the SETI community: Jill Tarter, Chris Chyba, and Frank Drake among others. By the time he entered college, Hand’s path was clear. "There was never a decision," he states. "It always just had to be." He knew he would use science to explore life on other worlds.

As an undergraduate studying in Psychology, Hand’s interest in SETI led him to focus on cognition and perception. He believed that understanding the human brain was important to anyone thinking ahead to a SETI detection, reasoning the "once we get signal, the largest task will be to decipher the message."

Upon graduation, Hand garnered a NASA internship through a SETI Institute program in the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, and in 2002, attended a Bioastronomy Conference in Hawaii. There, he met SETI Institute scientist, Dr. Laurance Doyle. "We talked about dolphin communication and extra solar planets," he recalls. The acquaintance deepened over subsequent lunches with Doyle at the Institute. It was during one of these lunches, that Hand met Dr. Christopher Chyba, for whom he would work as a public policy research assistant upon acceptance into a masters program in Stanford’s Mechanical Engineering program. For two years, Hand enjoyed working with Chyba at Stanford’s Center of International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) while completing his Masters degree in Geology.

The association continued, and remains close today, with Chyba overseeing Hand’s Ph.D. doctoral work on Europa. The Europa research is an important part of the SETI Institute’s NAI grant, of which Chyba, is the Principal Investigator. Hand’s component explores the potential for life on the icy moon of Jupiter.

High resolution close-up of Europa’s cracked surface, with the veiny, vermillion capillaries that intrigue geologists and astrobiologists. Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote the following famous and enigmatic passage in his novel, 2010: Odyssey 2: "All these worlds are yours – except Europa. Attempt no landing there."
Credit: NASA/Galileo

"Broadly, we are looking at the habitability of the putative ocean beneath the ice on Europa." Three things are necessary for the presence of life in the ocean: liquid water, chemical building blocks, and an energy source. Scientists know that water is abundant and that comets can deliver sufficient quantities of life’s building blocks. But what about the energy? Hand’s research examines the physics and chemistry behind the recycling of life’s materials to try to determine whether the process contains sufficient energy to drive a Europan ecosystem.

The Ph.D. student shares more than an interest in life on other worlds with his SETI Institute and Stanford mentor. Like Chyba, who grapples with issues of bio-terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as Co-Director of Stanford’s CISAC, Hand is driven by a profound concern for humanity and the planet we share.

For the last four years, Hand has traveled to Africa with an international group from Cosmos Education, an ambitious enterprise now in its fourth year. The name of the non-profit, which Hand established, is a tribute to Carl Sagan, who "tied everything together from the pure, fascinating science of things like the Big Bang and everything ‘out there,’ to life right here on Earth." Hand seeks to "open the eyes of African children to the way everything is connected — from the cycles of the moon, to the greenhouse effect, to the vehicles that they see on the road, to solar power, viruses, and diseases" and "to inspire, empower and engage these young students to become the future scientists, leaders, teachers of their village, country, Africa, or the world."

This summer Hand’s own development as a scientist reached a significant landmark. For the first time, he had the opportunity to "get his hands dirty" during a special summer session on geo-biology held on the California island of Catalina. Up until then, all of his work had been theoretical, involving computer calculations. In the Catalina program, Hand learned the tools of field research. It was on the island that he also caught the attention of film producer James Cameron.

James Cameron
As an artist and film-maker, James Cameron is fascinated by the extreme life: "When the hydrothermal vent animal communities were discovered in the late seventies, it just blew the lid off marine biology , and biology in general. It showed a completely different basis for life than anything that had been known previously".
Credit: Lightstorm/Cameron

Cameron was looking for an astrobiologist to join an exploration expedition to the mid-Atlantic ridge hydrothermal vent systems, and the Ph.D. student fit the bill. As a part of the science team aboard the Russian ship Keldish, the world’s largest research vessel, Hand experienced deep ocean vent sites, which scientists postulate as significant in the origin of life, and potential bases for ecosystems on other planets. During the two trips (one to the Atlantic the other to the Pacific) he had the opportunity to "explore, and collect samples," He now looks forward to integrating the experimental with the theoretical in his Ph.D. thesis, "both with regards to Europa and in thinking about the origin of life on Earth."

Hydrothermal vent sites, he explains, are systems at the spreading ridges between ocean plates. "Lines of volcanism," where molten rock that rises up between the plates, creating new ocean crust that spreads east and west. At the ridge line, geochemical energy results in the formation of "something like the Yellowstone hot springs on the ocean floor."

From "huge chimneys of mostly fools gold, (pyrite) and other materials," gush superheated vent fluids at temperatures that can reach extremes of 350 degrees Celsius. The sites are "fantastic cauldrons of interesting chemistry," as the fluids "contain hydrogen sulfide, pyrite, and many other compounds that could be useful, from a pre-organic standpoint, when thinking about the transition from inorganic to organic chemistry."

Hand refers to the vent sites as underwater oases he described the transition from desolate ocean floor to thriving ecosystem. "As you approach you see a few crabs, anemones and mussels. There is a steady increase of biological activity, and at the site, an incredible ‘rain forest’ of deep ocean life!"

"The story at the vents is really about the microbes," he continues. The ecosystem’s primary source of energy is the chemistry in the water rather than sunlight. While "much remains to be understood about the metabolic pathways of these vent organisms," some scientists "believe it may be possible to root the tree of life at the heat-loving hyperthermophilics found in the deep ridges."

Double-ridge pattern characteristic of close views of the Europan ice pack.
Image Credit: NASA/ Galileo

Hand believes this line of reasoning is compelling, for hydrothermal vents have existed for as long as there have been oceans, predating ‘warm little ponds’ on continents, which formed later in Earth’s history. A vent site origin for life would bear directly his studies of Europa. "On early Earth," he notes, "there was a lot of energy from the mantle available. And if there are vent sites on Europa, these could serve as sources of energy life could harness."

What’s Next

Asked about the future, Hand reflects upon the past. "At young age, I wanted to focus on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I’m still fascinated, and I do want to be involved with the SETI search in the future, but right now is an incredible time to be active in search for–" he pauses "the dumb stuff. Microbes on Mars, and microbes on Europa."

And to a young undergraduate trying to find their path, Hand would quote the three rules his colleagues use in African classrooms. "We tell children to let their teachers know when they need to slow down," because taking time to understand is important. "And we tell them, ‘ask questions!’ no matter how intimidating it might seem, the exciting side of science really resides in the questions."

"Finally, we tell them, Have fun! You’ve got to have fun," says Hand, whose smile underscores his own understanding of rule number three. "This is not to say that science is not hard work, but at the end of the day you have to enjoy what you do."

Related Web Pages

SETI Institute– Voices
James Cameron-Extreme Explorer series
Life and Giant Planets
Jupiter: Moon Festival
Jupiter’s Perfect Storms
Europan Diary