"Space is where we are looking for hints about where we, and the whole Earth, came from"by John Mather / June 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
When I first heard about humans and space, it was terrifying, because it was in the context of possible war between the USSR and US. But now I work for Nasa, at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland, and I help design ways to measure the things in outer space, from nearby planets to the Big Bang itself. Space is where we are looking for hints about where we, and the whole Earth, came from.
I’m the lead scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be far larger and more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, and when it is launched in 2020 it will help us track down those hints. We’ll be looking at our history, from the formation of the first stars, galaxies, and black holes when the expanding universe was only a few hundred million years old, to the formation of stars and planets nearby, to the story of our own solar system. The project is an international partnership led by Nasa, with the European and Canadian Space Agencies, and many industrial partners and research institutes, including the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh. Europe is providing the Ariane 5 rocket.
Space is also a place for adventure, either in person, robotically, or in the imagination. And it’s still a place for possible combat. But people have been looking up at it for a very long time. People—and a few frightened animals—are the first Earthlings to go there. We seem compelled to explore; some say people are the only ones, but I doubt it. All creatures explore, in their own way, and even plants have their ways. Experiments with fruit flies show that some are more adventurous than others—that they have personalities. If we build a robotic civilisation, I feel sure that the robots will also have personalities and egos, and some will want to explore too.
Then there are practical matters. The first explorers of space were the astronomers, the record keepers of old. Then came telescopes and measurements of distance, shocking people with the immensity of the Solar System; even the Sun is 150,000,000km away. Then came the discovery that the Sun is part of a galaxy, and the galaxy is part of a…