About Me

I'm an Explorer, Engineer, Writer, Public Speaker, and Entrepreneur. I write about exploration, travel, and science. 

Any views expressed on this site are my own.  

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For a complete list of works from the MIT Science Writing Program, click here.

For a list of my blog posts on Open NASA, click here

Thursday
Feb142013

PART 6: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don't Shine: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Originally produced as the thesis for my Master's from MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. Recently published in Astrobiology Magazine.

This is the final part of a series that tells the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives, without relying on the Sun as an energy source. This series follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can live without the Sun we may discover how life began on our planet, and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.



Steve Vance is still in the middle of planning discussions at JPL for a potential Europa mission that could launch as early as 2020. In early 2012, the team he’s on finished developing three different mission designs with three different vehicles—an orbiter, a flyby (like Voyager and Galileo) or a lander mission—that they’d pitched in a report to NASA agency brass the previous May. At the time, the lander mission was determined to be too expensive and risky. Today, the agency is currently considering another flyby mission as the leading candidate to be Earth’s next ambassador to Europa. 

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Thursday
Feb072013

Part 5: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don't Shine: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Originally produced as the thesis for my Master's from MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. Recently published in Astrobiology Magazine. 

This is Part 5 of a 6-part series telling the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life, by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives without relying on the Sun as an energy source. It follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can live without the Sun we may discover how life began on our planet, and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.



As he watched Florida recede in the distance, thoughts of the journey behind and the one lying before Chris German filled a hopeful mind. “Deep joy,” describes German, reflecting on his outlook at the start of the expedition. “The mystery (of the existence of the vent sites) had already been removed by the 2009 & 2011 expeditions so we knew exactly where to go, I had the best kit on the planet to sample with in ROV Jasonand in my NASA/NSF team I had assembled some of the best experts in the world, who have also become my friends along the way, to take out and sample the site with,” says German. “It couldn't get much better.” 

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Thursday
Jan312013

PART 4: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don't Shine: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Originally produced as the thesis for my Master's from MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. Recently published in Astrobiology Magazine

This is Part 4 of a 6-part series telling the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives without relying on the sun as an energy source. It follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise, led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can live without the sun, we may discover how life began on our planet and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.  

Voyager spacecraft illustration. Credit: NASA.Nineteen seventy-seven was the kind of a year that only comes around once every 176 years. That’s how often the outer planets of our solar system (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune… sorry Pluto) line up just right in their orbits around the sun to allow for a spacecraft to slingshot past all four of them. Rather than wait until 2153, NASA decided to take advantage of the opportunity of ‘77. The space agency launched the twin, 1-ton space probe emissaries, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, from Cape Canaveral in September and August of that year, respectively.

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Thursday
Jan242013

PART 3: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don't Shine: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Originally produced as the thesis for my Master's from MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. Recently published in Astrobiology Magazine. 

This is Part 3 of a 6-part series telling the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives without relying on the sun as an energy source. It follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise, led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can live without the sun, we may discover how life began on our planet and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.   

Origin of Life on Earth. From left to right, starting from a volcanic primitive Earth and simple molecules in the ocean to complex life forms on land. Credit: NASAHydrogen sulfide is a poison gas that’s lethal for humans even in very low concentrations. Yet, this compound—two parts hydrogen, one part sulfur—turned out to be the food source for bacteria that were driving an entirely new ecosystem. (New to us at least. Some scientists suspect this type of ecosystem might, in fact, be the oldest type of ecosystem on our planet.)

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Thursday
Jan172013

PART 2: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don't Shine: Explorations to the Seafloors of Earth and Europa

Originally produced as the thesis for my Master's from MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. Recently published in Astrobiology Magazine

This is Part 2 of a 6-part series telling the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives without relying on the sun as an energy source. It follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise, led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can live without the sun, we may discover how life began on our planet and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.  

 

Just as it helps Chris German answer riddles about the origin of life on Earth, life’s surprising hardiness gives astrobiologists cause for hope in finding life on seemingly inhospitable hells off Earth, too. Among researchers on the search for those hells is Steve Vance, a member of the Science Definition Team for NASA’s Europa missions. As Chris German and the crew of Atlantis set out to scoop up evidence for life on the bottom of Earth’s seafloor, Vance met with a team of engineers and planetary scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to plan a mission with a similar objective yet radically different destination. Their goal: to find out if there’s hydrothermal vent-like life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

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