Professor Jim Al-Khalili takes your questions!

Jim Al-Khalili.png

I am a professor of physics studying some of the deepest mysteries of the universe, mostly using maths. Although I work at the University of Surrey where I teach students and do my research, I am also a science communicator and make radio and TV programmes and write popular science books.

Where is space exploration heading next?

genuine_cat, Hammond Junior School

Why do you ask, genuine_cat? Are you volunteering for the next mission? Well, I can answer this question with confidence: we are heading back to the moon. Lots of countries have plans to send people to the moon and NASA has said its next mission will be in 2024, so we don’t have too long to wait. Once we’ve done that again, I am sure we’ll be sending humans to Mars, but that may be another 15-20 years. After that, who knows? I expect the next stop will be astronauts visiting the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Then the stars, but sadly I doubt that will be in my life time!

How much of space is left to discover?

jolly_frog, Birchwood C of E Primary School

Lots and lots and lots and…. Space is very, VERY big and we haven’t even finished exploring our solar system. So, don’t worry, jolly_frog, I am sure there are still loads of mysteries out there that will surprise us. Some stuff we can learn by studying space through our telescopes – which, by the way, are getting more and more powerful – but ultimately, we can only truly understand what’s out in space by going there ourselves.

What are the chances of intelligent life existing in this universe?

creative_sparrow, The Ruth Gorse Academy

Hi creative_sparrow. This is one of the most important unanswered questions in science and you will get different answers depending on who you talk to. But since you are asking me… Well, we now know that there are probably billions of earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone, never mind the whole universe. So, I would be astonished if earth has been the only place where life exists. While we don’t how life first started here on earth, we do know that it started pretty quickly – as soon as the conditions were right after it first formed over four billion years ago. What we don’t know is how rare it is for complex, intelligent life to emerge. So my guess would be that the universe is full of alien life, but it might be very boring single-cell life you could only see under microscope, and not little green creatures in flying saucers.

But, then again….

Do you think space exploration is worth the cost and why?

mindful_donkey, Foxfield Primary School.

I was afraid someone might ask me that question. So, thanks for nothing, mindful_donkey. But, OK, I will try to answer you as honestly as I can. Sure, there’s a good argument that says: why spend billions of pounds exploring a lump of rock at the edge of the solar system when we could use the money to build more hospitals and schools or to cure cancer. But that is actually a lazy argument. Humans are curious creatures and if we stop asking questions about the universe and stop exploring it then I think we lose something of our humanity. So, it should not be a choice between spending money on space exploration and spending money on all the other things a civilised enlightened society should also do, like tackle disease and poverty. We have enough money and resources to do both, provided we lived in a fair society.

Humans are curious creatures and if we stop asking questions about the universe and stop exploring it then I think we lose something of our humanity.

Jim Al-Khalili

Is there time in space?

loyal_editor, Hammond Junior School

Hi loyal­_editor. Yes, time exists in space. We didn’t invent time here on earth – what we did was invent the way we measure time and the units we use to do that. So, we invented seconds and minutes. We call the time takes for the earth to spin once on its axis, a ‘day’, and the time it takes to go once round the sun, a’year’. We also invented the different time zones around the earth. But even if life had never evolved on earth, time would still exist: the earth would spin and orbit the sun, the future would turn into the past, planets and stars would be born and die and the universe would continue to expand, even if there was no one around to witness it or use a clock to measure how long stuff take to do things.

Is there anyway for people to have a life on Mars that is similar to Earth?

enlightened_writer, Preston Manor School

Nice question. The answer is that, at the moment, Mars is pretty inhospitable. It doesn’t have much of an atmosphere so we cannot breath there, and it is far too cold. It also isn’t protected, like earth is, from radiation from space, because it doesn’t have a protective magnetic field. So, if we do want to colonise Mars there is a lot of work we would have to do to make it habitable. This is called ‘terraforming’ and is currently beyond our technology. In any case, it’s much more urgent that we fix our own planet from all the damage we’ve done to it before we worry about Mars, don’t you agree, enlightened_writer?

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