The search for life beyond our Pale Blue Dot is a task that inspires people from all walks of life, and captivates those of us lucky enough to call ourselves “astrobiologists.” The universe is teeming with worlds we would love to understand and one day explore. Here at Georgia Tech, for our part of the quest, we are building a program to understand how icy ocean worlds form, evolve, and ultimately could give rise to life. We focus most of our work on Europa, Jupiter’s dynamic innermost icy moon, as an archetype for how a habitable ice-ocean planet could operate.
We are particularly interested in icy ocean worlds, and the rise and support of life in these environments. Both endogenic processes (internal to the planet) and exogenic processes (influence from other factors) affect a planet’s habitability. For decades we have searched for the next Earth, for the next possible living planet, and central to this theme has been the search for water, of which ice is the most common form. But it is naïve to assume that where there is water there will necessarily be life; on Earth, there is a complicated interplay between biology and its environment that cannot be decoupled from geologic cycles. Thus, in order to look out, we look inward, using the Earth as a model system for how a planet works at its most fundamental level, and then apply this to the study of other potentially habitable planets. This work takes us across the planet, including to Antarctica.
Our research makes use of fieldwork, spacecraft and telescope observations, and links these observations to dynamics through physical models and experimentation. Our research into terrestrial environments is focused on understanding their evolution and how dependent ecosystems arise and survive, fascinating questions in and of themselves that have implications for the search for life beyond Earth. Thus as we look to understand Europa, we can answer fundamental questions about the nature of Earth’s rapidly changing climate along with its polar ecosystems.