Space scientist Professor Monica Grady of the Open University spoke to the British Council's Ellie Buchdahl at this week's London International Youth Science Forum about the many uses of space science, why it's important to talk about it, and what the future of the discipline might hold.
Why should we fund space science?
Because to the next generation of young scientists, nothing is more inspirational than space. It’s the ‘Are we alone?’; it’s the ‘Is there anything out there?’. Space is important to our fundamental understanding of the relationship between the solid planet we walk on and the origin of life.
It's not just about building rockets that fly to comets. The space industry is mainly involved with making satellites that orbit the earth; space exploration is a very small part of that. It’s also about designing and making satellites for weather forecasting, television, global communications, and monitoring earthquakes and sea levels.
The results of this work have wider uses in medicine, science and all sorts of other industries. To build Ptolemy, the instrument we developed to measure the gases on the comet during the Rosetta mission, we had to take a piece of equipment that was the size of a room and turn it into something the size of a shoe box so that it was small and light enough to go into space.
The UK's Ministry of Defence and British Aerospace now have a contract to put versions of these instruments on all average-class submarines to check the carbon dioxide levels on board and ensure that submariners don’t suffocate. Before, someone had to pop down a few times a day, tap a barometer, note down the carbon dioxide level, and take it up on a piece of paper to an officer. Now they can monitor carbon dioxide levels constantly and be alerted instantly if something goes wrong.
We’ve also been working with the Wellcome Trust, the world's biggest medical research charity, using our instruments to look at the exhaled gases and sputum from tuberculosis sufferers; and with hospitals in Bristol and Oxford on breath tests for pancreatic and bladder cancer.
We’re even working with a chain of hotels to make a detector for bedbugs in hotels, and with pharmaceutical companies to develop improved aftershaves.
How is flying to a comet relevant to us 'Earthlings'?
Flying to a comet isn’t just a pointless sci-fi exercise. The Rosetta Mission was named after the Rosetta Stone – the rock discovered in Egypt in the 18th century, engraved with a decree from King Ptolemy in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic script (the language used by ordinary people) and ancient Greek. It was this stone that first allowed people to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Archaeologists used it to unlock the history of ancient Egypt – the cradle of civilisation. In the same way, the Rosetta Mission is about understanding the roots of our own human existence.
What will the Rosetta Mission tell us about Earth's history?
The solar system was made from a huge cloud of gas and dust, 4,567 million years ago. When the cloud collapsed, it formed the Sun and the planets. The surface of Earth was incredibly hot – molten, in fact – so no water could condense into rivers or oceans. Water only existed as steam in the atmosphere.
By contrast, comets were formed at the same time as Earth and the Sun, but in the outer regions of the solar system, where it was much colder. Their cooler temperature meant that water and ice could condense and didn't float off as gases. So these comets still contain the original material from the birth of the solar system.
Now the solar system has quietened down. Meteorites and bits of comet still fall to Earth all the time – about 60,000 tonnes of space matter each year - but luckily, most of this settles as dust, rather than landing in one catastrophic mass. Earth is cooler too, so nowadays, when space matter falls, volatile substances like water and carbon stay on the planet's surface and are added to its mass.
What was the mission's aim?
One of the reasons to go to the comet was to find out more about the original volatile substances in the comet, and compare them with what is on Earth now. This will help us learn what materials developed on Earth, and are therefore unique to our planet.
It should also give us an idea of how much water, carbon, and other building blocks of life might exist on other planets like Mars, Venus and Mercury. Such information will help us look for whether there is, or could be, life on other planets - and helps us better understand the essential ingredients that support our own existence too.
Who will be the next generation of space scientists?
Space is completely international and will remain so. In our department alone, we work with people from Japan, the US, Australia, Morocco, and France.
Speaking at the London International Youth Science Forum has been stunning. I’ve never talked to such a responsive audience – students from more than 75 countries. I was pleased to see so many girls, including many young women wearing headscarves. It sends the message that women from all over the world can do this, and that it’s important for women to do it.
However, I am concerned that as Britain leaves the EU, international researchers – particularly, of course, those from the EU – are worried about whether they should take up research posts in the UK. It’s incredibly important that, whatever our country has voted, we do not allow that international atmosphere to change.
I am also concerned that – even in Britain – there are whole communities we struggle to reach. Governments, research councils and funding bodies make clear that you absolutely have to devote time to making sure people care about what you're doing – outreach and engagement, or what we used to refer to as ‘public understanding’. It’s not good enough just to stand there and lecture. But when it comes to choosing STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), often young people from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities aren’t there.
We have festivals of science and music, which are so engaging and young people do come, but I’m disappointed at the lack of diversity. It’s the same with schools. I rarely refuse an invitation to a school, but the ones that do invite me are the ones where teachers are already energised. I’d love it if I was getting invitations to go and talk to more difficult schools, where you felt that if one pupil stayed behind at the end of your talk to ask a question, you could really make a difference.
The Rosetta mission was all about engagement. Our promo film starred Aiden Gillen, who plays Petyr in Game of Thrones, we had the Rosetta spacecraft and the Philae lander tweeting from their own Twitter feeds – and of course that picture of me celebrating the landing! But how do you get everybody to really get involved? That’s the big problem that needs to be addressed.
If a student or postdoc came to you looking for ‘the next big research topic’, where would you encourage them to look?
I think small body research - looking at small bodies (like moons and asteroids) in the solar system - is going to be where it’s at. A huge amount of new data has come from Pluto, comets and asteroids, and we are seeing that these small bodies are not exhibiting the behaviour that we expected. For example, more of them seem to be hotter inside than we thought, and there’s a lot more water there than we thought. We are just starting to explore the Kuiper belt, the region of the solar system beyond Neptune’s orbit where Pluto is located. There are opportunities there for chemists, physicists, and all branches of science.
Professor Monica Grady is Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences and Director of the Cosmochemistry research group at the Open University, a Fellow and former President of the Meteoritical Society, fellow of the Institute of Physics and Geochemical Society and former fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. She is primarily known for her work on meteorites – asteroid Monicagrady is named in her honour, and a picture of her went viral in 2014 when she was snapped celebrating the touchdown of the Philae lander on its comet.
Monica appeared at the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF), which brings 500 students from 76 countries to the UK for a fortnight of science-related events. LIYSF runs on 27 July - 10 August 2016.