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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Astrobiology

Alien Oceans The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

Popular Science
By: Kevin Peter Hand(Author)
289 pages, 8 plates with 15 colour photos and colour illustrations; 22 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Accessible and terribly fascinating, Alien Oceans makes a convincing case for why you would want to explore the moons in our solar system in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Alien Oceans
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  • Alien Oceans ISBN: 9780691227283 Paperback Nov 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Alien Oceans ISBN: 9780691179513 Hardback Mar 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Selected version: £16.99
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About this book

Where is the best place to find life beyond Earth? We often look to Mars as the most promising site in our solar system, but recent scientific missions have revealed that some of the most habitable real estate may actually lie farther out. Beneath the frozen crusts of several of the small, ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn lurk vast oceans that may have been in existence for as long as Earth, and together may contain more than fifty times its total volume of liquid water. Could there be organisms living in their depths? Alien Oceans reveals the science behind the thrilling quest to find out.

Kevin Peter Hand is one of today's leading NASA scientists whose pioneering research has taken him on expeditions around the world. In this captivating account of scientific exploration, he brings together insights from planetary science, biology, and the adventures of scientists like himself to explain how we know that oceans exist within moons of the outer solar system, like Europa, Titan, and Enceladus. He shows how the exploration of Earth's ocean is informing our understanding of the potential habitability of these icy moons, and draws lessons from what we have learned about the origins of life on our own planet to consider how life could arise on these distant worlds.

Alien Oceans describes what lies ahead in our search for life in our solar system and beyond, setting the stage for the transformative discoveries that may await us.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Look to the moons
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 28 Jul 2021 Written for Paperback

    This is the second of a two-part dive into the story of oceans on Earth and elsewhere, following my review of Ocean Worlds. That book gave a deep history of how our oceans shaped Earth and life on it and briefly dipped its toes into the topic of oceans beyond Earth. Alien Oceans is the logical follow-up. How did we figure out that there are oceans elsewhere? And would such worlds be hospitable to life? Those are the two big questions at the heart of this book. If there is one person fit to answer them, it is Kevin Peter Hand, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and their deputy chief for solar system exploration.

    A major question in astrobiology is whether the evolution of life on Earth is a fluke, or whether life is bound to pop up wherever conditions are favourable. Hand very neatly frames this in the bigger history of science. Over the centuries, we figured out that the laws of physics, chemistry, and geology work beyond Earth. But "when it comes to biology, we have yet to make that leap. Does biology work beyond Earth?" (p. 15). What we have learned is that life as we know it needs water. And though there is no shortage of theories on the origins of life , oceans are very likely where it started, and thus a logical first place to start looking for answers.

    If you have any interest in astrobiology, you will probably have heard of the concept of a habitable zone or Goldilocks zone where, based on the distance to a star, conditions for life are just right: not too hot, nor too cold. Earth obviously falls in that zone. Next to many minor insights, Alien Oceans had three major eye-openers for me. This was the first one:

    There are other Goldilocks zones.

    Depending on the details of their orbit, moons can experience such strong tidal tugs from their parent planet that the constant squeezing and stretching of the rock creates enough heat through internal friction to sustain liquid water. The physics of water helps, as it has a seemingly mundane but unusual property. Ice floats. When water solidifies, its density decreases slightly. What this means for moons is that the liquid water exposed to the cold of deep space freezes and forms a protective icy shell. Most liquids do not have this useful property. When they freeze, they sink to the bottom exposing more liquid until all of it is frozen solid. To top it off, ice is also a good thermal insulator, helping such ocean worlds retain heat. Maybe I have been hiding under a rock, but this was revelatory for me. Suddenly, the amount of cosmic real estate suitable for life has increased quite dramatically. And we have some of it right here on our doorstep.

    The existence of oceans in our solar system and how we gathered the evidence is one of the two major threads running through this book. Hand examines this in detail for Jupiter's moon Europa, which has been studied in the most detail. Three types of data are typically gathered: spectroscopic, gravimetric, and magnetometric. This is where Hand gets fairly technical, though, fortunately, he extensively uses comparisons with everyday concepts and technologies to help you understand the underlying (astro)physics. Without retreading his careful explanations, in Europa's case, these different strands of data all converge on a moon with an icy shell and a substantial subsurface ocean some 80-170 km thick as the best explanation. Mixed in with this narrative are the details and many technical setbacks of the Galileo mission that are nail-bitingly tense in places.

    Similar missions and measurements have been done for Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan, Jupiter's moons Ganymede and Callisto, Neptune's moon Triton, and Pluto. The evidence for oceans gathered so far gets less robust in this order, but there are some notable variations on the theme. Enceladus ejects spectacular plumes of water and carbon compounds that were photographed and sampled by the Cassini-Huygens mission. Ganymede, meanwhile, is so large that the bottom of its ocean might consist of an exotic form of dense ice, ice III, formed at very high pressures not seen on Earth, meaning its ocean is sandwiched between two layers of ice.

    So you have found exo-oceans. Now what? Can we expect to find life here? That is the second major thread. Hand identifies five conditions for life to emerge: a solvent such as water, chemical building blocks, an energy source, catalytic surfaces, and time. Interestingly, there is a gap between two schools of thought. The top-down explanation deconstructs life backwards in time until we arrive at an RNA world, but how did that get started? The bottom-up explanation has shown that life's basic building blocks such as amino acids exist in space, but how do we go from there to larger functional molecules?

    This was the second major eye-opener for me: "Our environment is full of chemical disequilibrium [...] there are reactions just waiting to happen. [...] The metabolisms that drive life accelerate reactions in the environment, releasing energy faster than would have occurred without life" (p. 144). Hand takes a leaf out of Nick Lane's book The Vital Question when he enthusiastically concludes that "the why of life is metabolism" (p. 146), offering the universe a pathway to increase entropy faster.

    The third and final eye-opener concerns the need for a catalytic surface, which is where Hand circles back to oceanographic exploration here on Earth, a recurrent theme in this book. When hydrothermal vents teeming with life were discovered in 1977, these quickly became a popular alternative explanation to warm tidal pools as a place where life could have started. These black smokers are powered by magma rising to the surface at mid-ocean ridges, jetting out superheated water of over 400 °C. Though volcanism and tectonics arecommon processes on many solar system bodies, there is another option. Alkaline vents, first discovered in 2000 at the Lost City hydrothermal field, are powered by exothermic (energy-releasing) reactions between water and mineral-rich rock, heating water to a more gentle 70-100 °C. All these need are the right rocks with cracks in them so water can percolate down.

    Hand raises many other interesting questions towards the end of the book that I will skip over for the sake of brevity. Alien Oceans limits itself to oceans in our solar system, not touching on the topic of exoplanetary oceans. Given this is not Hand's expertise, that is reasonable. Even without this topic, Alien Oceans is information-dense. Nevertheless, it is an intellectually very rewarding book and the many analogies make it accessible. Terribly fascinating, Alien Oceans makes a convincing case for exploring the moons in our solar system in the search for extraterrestrial life.
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Kevin Peter Hand is a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he has served as deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration and is currently leading an effort to land a spacecraft on the surface of Europa. He has helped lead expeditions to the glaciers of Kilimanjaro, the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, and the sea ice of the North Pole. He lives in Los Angeles.

Popular Science
By: Kevin Peter Hand(Author)
289 pages, 8 plates with 15 colour photos and colour illustrations; 22 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Accessible and terribly fascinating, Alien Oceans makes a convincing case for why you would want to explore the moons in our solar system in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Media reviews

– Longlisted for the Young Adult Science Book Award, AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books
– One of NPR's best books of 2020

"If you enjoy imagining a mission in which humans launch a rocket that contains a spacecraft that releases a lander that launches a space boat – or even a space submarine – Hand's book will help you grasp the full picture."
– Philip Ewing, NPR's best books of 2020

"A NASA scientist looks to the water-rich moons of Jupiter and Saturn, such as Europa, Titan, and Enceladus, as promising sites for the search for life beyond the Earth."
Publishers Weekly

"[Alien Oceans] describes why studying Earth's own ocean is a crucial chapter in the quest to explore the shores of extraterrestrial seas."
– Nadia Drake, National Geographic

"Alien Oceans offers a historical look – as well as a peek into the future – at one of the most exciting aspects of space exploration. With the technology at hand, we could determine whether there's life beyond Earth."
– Sid Perkins, Science News

"A book that is likely to prove one of the year's most enthralling first-person accounts of a life in science."
– Simon Ings, New Scientist

"Alien Oceans successfully straddles a fine line between accessibility and scientific thoroughness. Hand's book is as fascinating as it is optimistic."
– Tobias Mutter, Shelf Awareness

"What is so captivating about this book is that it isn't just a solid survey of what we've learned in recent decades about the icy moons, but that the narrative is told by an active researcher deeply embedded in these endeavours. Through Hand's eyes we meet many of the key personalities involved and feel the sting of disappointment at cancelled funding or a malfunctioning probe, as well as the soaring excitement of a new discovery."
– Lewis Dartnell, BBC Sky at Night Magazine

"The author discusses how we look for and study alien oceans and what the future holds for this increasingly popular field of research. This is a book well suited to the general public, with very accessible prose, and science interspersed with personal anecdotes and witty analogies."
Nature Astronomy

"To paraphrase Hamlet, there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt in our philosophy. Hand calls on us to probe the depths of alien oceans to discover them. I agree."
– Robert Zubrin, National Review

"This is a fun, pretty cool book to read [...] Hand's enthusiasm is clear to see, and he has written an accessible book that takes the general reader along with him to illustrate what we already know about Io, Callisto, Titan, Ganymede and Europa too."
– Simon Cocking, Irish Tech News

"This book would make anyone excited about space. The research presented is thorough and the pictures included are amazing. Hand dives into every aspect of life imaginable."
– Rachel Dehning, Manhattan Book Review

"A thoughtful and thought-provoking treatise on the many facets that are being pursued in our quest to discover new worlds and search for life beyond our atmosphere."
– Milbry C. Polk, The Explorers Journal

"Alien Oceans represents an excellent introduction to the search for life in a newly defined zone of possibility. It is a good rendering of how scientific research in extreme environments is carried out, including examples of things that can go badly wrong, and comes across to the reader as the work of someone with a real enthusiasm for his subject. I very much hope that Hand will be our guide on future journeys."
– John Gilbey, Chemistry World

"It's a tale full of scientific twists, and Hand proves an exemplary guide: never going quite where you expect him to go and confidently leading you to ideas that are, as you'd hope, not at all obvious."
– Corey S. Powell, American Scientist

"Kevin Peter Hand has delivered a beautiful portrayal of the science behind our search for life in alien oceans, and the connection to our precious ocean here on Earth. A must-read for all who gaze at the stars above and ponder the abyss below."
– James Cameron

"In this delightful book, Kevin Peter Hand takes readers from the depths of Earth's oceans to those of the outer solar system, describing encounters with magical, alien-like creatures at the bottom of the Atlantic and offering informed speculations about what life could be like in the subsurface oceans of faraway moons. Recounting the story of how we discovered these alien oceans, he gives us a peek at the lives and personalities of some of the scientists who pieced together all the clues. His explanations are full of engaging analogies that will help general readers understand the science needed to think rigorously about life as we know it – and as we do not yet know it."
– Jill Tarter, SETI Institute

"Kevin Peter Hand is an explorer – an explorer of the arctic, of Earth's deep oceans, and of outer space. Now he longs to explore the vast oceans beneath the ice of moons of Jupiter and Saturn. In his book Alien Oceans, he straps you in and takes you along for the ride."
– Christopher F. Chyba, Princeton University

"Hand provides general readers with the tools for understanding the search for life on ocean worlds beyond Earth. His conclusion is clear: go explore these exciting worlds, for they may hold the secrets to the preponderance or scarcity of life in the universe and the origins of life on our own planet."
– J. Hunter Waite, coeditor of Enceladus and the Icy Moons of Saturn

"Hand humanizes the science behind the search for life on icy worlds in our solar system and beyond."
– Gordon Southam, University of Queensland

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