The Rolex Awards for Enterprise
As a key member of the Solar System Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, American astrobiologist and planetary scientist Kevin Hand is attempting to answer the fundamental question: “What is life and could it exist out there beyond Earth?” Ever since he was a child gazing at the stars in rural Vermont, Hand has been obsessed with outer space and extraterrestrial life. He went on to study physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College and, subsequently, received a master’s in mechanical engineering and a Ph.D in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford University. Following various research positions with NASA and at Princeton, he joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, in 2007, and became Deputy Chief Scientist in 2011, the year he was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Hand is currently helping spearhead a project to send an orbiting probe to explore Europa – Jupiter’s fourth largest moon with an estimated 100-kilometre-deep (60-mile) ocean beneath its frozen crust – in about 2022. To research the best way to study this alien place and to create the appropriate instruments for the mission, he has travelled from the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro to the valleys of Antarctica and explored the ocean depths. No ordinary rocket scientist, Hand works with leading science-fiction film directors, helping them base their stories in scientific reality. He has a long-standing relationship with James Cameron, whom he has accompanied on historic expeditions, and, most recently, collaborated with Ridley Scott on the sci-fi thriller, Prometheus. Hand is simultaneously engaged in more earth-bound challenges. In 1999, he founded Cosmos Education, a non-profit organization working to empower African children through science, technology, health and environmental education. Although motivated to probe the outer solar system, Hand recognizes “how crucial it is to protect our collective home, planet Earth”.
Image credit: © Mark Thiessen/National Geographic
Published in 2014