Interview with Europa Report’s JPL science advisors Kevin Hand and Steve Vance

Kevin Hand and Steve Vance (photo by Alex A. Kecskes)
Kevin Hand and Steve Vance (photo by Alex A. Kecskes)

Easily one of the most realistic and believable films depicting space travel, Europa Report takes viewers on a “found footage” journey to Europa, one of Jupiter’s many moons.  Giving the film a definite air of authenticity are NASA JPL scientists Steve Vance and Kevin Hand, who served as science advisors for the film. In this roundtable interview, Vance and Hand discuss their roles on the film and the intriguing possibility of life on this distant celestial body.

Why, in your expert opinion, do you think life exists below the ice in Europa?

Steve Vance: Well, Europa, to the best of our knowledge, seems to have the three keystones we think are needed for habitability: vast quantities of liquid water, a rocky seafloor that provides the elements needed for life, and in various ways and mechanisms, we think that Europa’s ocean may have some of the chemistry needed to help power life. Those are the basics. Coupled with that, when it comes to not just habitability, but also the origin of life, we think that Europa’s ocean has been there roughly since the beginning of the solar system, and we think that water-rock interactions, having a catalytic surface for the initial chemistry of life, might be critical and we think Europa has that. The most dramatic example would be hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Report (Magnolia Pictures)
Europa Report (Magnolia Pictures)

Can you talk about the science used in the movie?  What was real and what was stretched to make a story?

Steve: They really let science drive a lot of the theatrics that was in the movie. They had to pay careful attention to the fact that the surface of Europa is bombarded by radiation. They had to avoid any exposure to the surface and design their mission around that. They also completely laid out the case for Europa having an ocean. Many times they’d talk about the things Kevin and I talk about in our work. They were pursuing evidence that has been coming to light in recent decades about the possibility of sub-surface water. And they make kind of playful allusions to particular sites where water might be present.

What’s it like to be on a project where you can stretch what can be done, to suddenly go from what you know is real to “let’s play with it”?

IMG_1840Steve:  That’s much of the fun in doing these movie consultations, in that it allows us to remove some of the constraints that we normally have in our day-to-day lives—where we’re writing scientific papers, doing rigorous experiments.  As a consultant, all bets are off when we’re brainstorming with writers and directors and artists on movie concepts. With science, we have to imagine something, then figure out how to constrain it, make it reproducible and make an experiment—the scientific method. Here, we spitball things and see what works and fits the storytelling. In this particular case, these guys saw science as useful, almost a character in the storyline, and much of our value-added in our work with the team was, in part, helping to illuminate ways in which the natural environment, the radiation on Europa or the chemistry of the ocean could be an important plot mechanism.

What was the process? Were you given the script to review and then said, we can do this but we can’t do that?

Steve: The process involved them coming to use with something that was preliminary, that they had given some thought to and they would have us look at it. We had a lot of email exchanges suggesting edits, suggesting what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry and how those play together on Earth. How those things suggest limitations to different scenarios.

Europa Report (Magnolia Pictures)
Europa Report (Magnolia Pictures)

Was there anything that you really wanted to do that you couldn’t do because science contradicted it?

Steve: There was something that I wanted them to do but it was limited by budget. I’m excited about the idea of putting humans underneath the ice. Because it turns out that the surface is heavily bombarded and deadly. If you could get just a few meters below, there’s a pretty good chance you’d be protected and safe. So it’s not so infeasible that if you could get there in the first place, you could do that.

In the hypothetical world, is there any chance that what we see at the end of the movie could really exist?

Steve: Well, scientifically, that’s one of the reasons I want to go there. We can test these issues of evolutionary contingents vs. convergence. This is a big challenge for understanding life on Earth. Why did the eyeball evolve 50 some odd times? We compare and contrast different environments on Earth. Going to a world like Europa where there might be life living today, allows us to say, okay, if you go to a whole different planet, whole alien eco-system, do some of those same evolutionary parallels persist? On the biochemical level, does the DNA/RNA protein paradigm persist on a world like Europa? And on a larger scale, do tentacles come into play?

One of the big elements of the movie is that it’s a commercial mission. Do you think that’s the way it might be, with SpaceX heralding the future of deep space exploration?

Europa Report (Magnolia Pictures)
Europa Report (Magnolia Pictures)

Kevin: Not for deep space. I’m very excited about commercial space exploration, but SpaceX is funded by NASA. As much as SpaceX might like to position itself as David vs. Goliath, SpaceX is nothing without NASA. Now Virgin Galactic is completely separate and they’re doing phenomenal stuff, starting with the suborbital flights and hopefully, they’ll move on to full orbital flights.

Is there anything in the film itself that you can point to and say, that came out of my work?

Steve: The radiation environment on Europa is a huge issue from an engineering design standpoint. Jupiter’s magnetic field has these ions and electrons that are bouncing up and down and they bombard the surface of Europa. Europa’s surface radiation environment is somewhat akin to a pretty high solar flare event in the upper atmosphere of the Earth. Not even thinking about astronauts, but robotic spacecraft. It’s a real challenge, so we worked with them on that. As you saw in the film, the radiation effects and dosimeters play a pretty central role to a mission.

Do you think that if we ever went on a deep space mission to Europa or Mars, that they would send three ships at once for redundancy?

Steve: Budget’s you’re only limit there. Having as much redundancy as possible would be great. But again, that’s part of the difference between true commercial space flight as depicted in this film vs. what NASA can do. The risk posture for NASA is a lot more conservative that a privately funded space flight.

How do you think the current political climate is affecting NASA?

Steve: There’s only so much that is tenable that the government sees fit to fund. There’s this perception that NASA efforts cost a lot and that if the government invests more in NASA that it will be perceived at what some see as more worthy. I think that’s a fallacy. I think there’s a good case to be made for partnering on things that NASA has established pretty well and that private industry can do. I don’t know if SpaceX has a role in defense. I hope they’re partnering away from NASA.

Europa (Wikipedia)
Europa (Wikipedia)

What have we learned from our flybys past Europa?

Steve: Voyager flew by in one of NASA’s first spacecraft to tour the solar system. It sent back stunning images, which set the tantalizing stage for what might be happening on Europa. Closer in is Io, the most volcanically active body in the solar system. When Voyager flew by Jupiter and took pictures of Jupiter and its moons, we saw that Io had these massive volcanic eruptions. Europa, being just a little further out and covered in ice, started this thought process of, wow, what if Europa is like Io, just covered in ice that has these volcanoes beneath the ice that help maintain a liquid water ocean? The Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s and the early part of the last decade returned a lot of data that helped us figure out that there really could be an ocean beneath this ice shell. Then the Cassini spacecraft flew by on its way to Saturn. So, too, did the new Horizon spacecraft that went on its way to Pluto.



Alex A. Kecskes has written hundreds of film reviews and celebrity interviews for a wide variety of online and print outlets. He has covered red carpet premieres and Comic-Con events for major films and independent releases.