BBC Sky at Night Magazine

Interview with the author

- Kevin Peter Hand

Why study icy ocean worlds?

If we’ve learned anything from life on Earth it’s that where you find liquid water, you generally find life. The exciting question for me and my colleagues is, if there’s that much liquid water out in these alien oceans, could there be life?

Would a sample return mission to these worlds be possible?

Time and gravity are a real pain in the neck when you’re thinking about doing sample return missions. With Europa it would mean getting to the surface, gathering a sample, then launching a spacecraft that can escape Jupiter’s gravity to get back to Earth. Also, we have strict regulation­s to make sure we don’t contaminat­e that world or affect our measuremen­ts by detecting a microbe we brought with us. And bringing a sample back to Earth puts up a huge barrier of making sure we contain that sample and protect our planet from an alien organism.

What might intelligen­t life in an alien ocean be like?

Think about how our ability to look up at the night sky has motivated our desire to explore. If there were intelligen­t life in an ocean like Europa’s, it wouldn’t be able to see the night sky. Above would be an ice shell creaking and cracking from tidal energy dissipatio­n, so it could have a limited understand­ing of its place in the cosmos. How does that manifest itself in the evolution of intelligen­ce? How does curiosity come about in an intelligen­t organism that doesn’t know to ask the question “are we alone?”

Kevin Peter Hand is a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is currently leading an effort to land a spacecraft on Europa

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