Astrobiologist: Kevin Hand

Astrobiologist: Kevin Hand

From star-gazer to planetary scientist, read how Emerging Explorer Kevin Hand found his place in the stars.


5 - 12+


Astronomy, Engineering

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Kevin is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He is studying the possibilities for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is most likely covered by an ice-capped ocean.

Kevin also helped found Cosmos Education, an organization dedicated to advancing science education among African children.

Early Work
Kevin laughs when he recalls being “obsessed with aliens” as a boy and devouring science fiction books and movies.

As a high school student, Kevin participated in science fairs, with experiments focusing on physics and astronomy. While building rockets, he also developed an interest in engineering.

Kevin went on to study physics and psychology at Dartmouth College. He then earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, where he stayed to earn his Ph.D. in geological and environmental sciences.

Most Exciting Part of Your Work
“The pursuit of new knowledge, and being a part of something taking place on a grand scale. We have an incredible team [at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory].”

Most Demanding Part of Your Work
Working with a government agency involves a lot of paperwork, applications, and bureaucracy. “It has to be done, but it’s not my favorite part of the job,” Kevin says.

How Do You Define Geography?
“I define geography in the context of geology and how it interacts with life and organic chemistry.”

Scientists and engineers at NASA must work with the geography of different planets and moons when planning to send probes. There are “craters, canyons, mountains, and, where I’m looking on Europa, broken-up icebergs,” Kevin says.

Geographic data help scientists and engineers decide what type of probe to send. The two main types of probes are orbiters, which stay in orbit above a planet and take pictures and other data, and landers, which actually parachute onto the surface of a planet or moon. The landscape of a planet can sometimes be a constraint, Kevin says.

“There are some tall mountains on Mars. Some of the astrophysicists may want to have a probe land on the mountain and study the geology and atmosphere there. But the engineers object to that because the altitude doesn’t give the lander enough time to safely deploy its parachute. So, there’s a lot of debate about the safety and science of how to study a site.”

Kevin is part of a team developing a probe to send to Europa in about 2020. Europa is covered by a thick layer of ice, but there are several red spots where organic material from below may be churning to the surface. Kevin hopes a probe can land near one of these red spots and collect the material. (Having a probe actually penetrate Europa’s 20-kilometer (12-mile) thick ice layer is “the dream of dreams,” he says.)

Knowing the geography of Europa is “central to efforts to search for signs of life on other worlds,” Kevin says. “There is no succinct definition of life, but everything we know points to the necessity of liquid water.”

If Europa is covered by an active, liquid ocean below the icy surface, it is one of the most likely sites for extraterrestrial life in our solar system. “We could find Europan fish, we don’t know!” Kevin laughs.

So, You Want To Be an . . . Astrobiologist
Astronomy and astrobiology are interdisciplinary studies, Kevin says. “Study biology, chemistry, physics, engineering ...”

Get Involved
Kevin encourages families to foster curiosity about the world around them—and beyond. “I grew up under the clear skies of Vermont, so just looking up inspired me.”

Fast Fact

Cosmos Education
Kevin Hand's 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."

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National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 4, 2024

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