Colin Pillinger (Professor of Planetary Sciences) gives expert video advice on: Do you think there will be a base on the moon?; Do you think we will colonize other planets?; What are the benefits of space science to humanity? and more...
How high do you have to go from earth before you're in space?
The generally accepted distance to space from earth is 100km, which is 62 miles. That means that the farthest person from the ocean in Britain is 17-odd miles away, so in fact the farthest person from the ocean is nearer to space in England.
What do you think would happen if we did find life on other planets?
Once you find life, you want to find out if it's life like on Earth or if it's life that is completely different. Now, if it was like life on Earth then it would have to have evolved differently. This is what gave Darwin the clue to evolution and Wallace, who also worked on it. This is what gave them the clue. All of a sudden they transported themselves from Europe, where they knew the biology, to South America, the Galapagos islands, and the far East Indes; they started finding different kinds of life, but the same kinds of life that evolved in different ways. That's how they came up with this idea that things mutate and become different. Now, if we were on a planet which had been separated from Earth for four and a half billion years, you can imagine different, real, diversions. So, you would study this to see if it is the same process as life on earth. If it wasn't the same as life on earth, then it didn't work on the same fundamental principles; it works on another set of principles. Now, that's even more fun because you now have two kinds of life that you can compare and contrast, and you might even find out how life started. This is another step back; everybody wants to know where they came from. How did suddenly something which was just lifeless compounds suddenly become a primitive organism, which then developed into a complicated organism, which then developed into us. We're certainly not the pinnacle of evolution. So, somewhere out there, there is somebody who has evolved farther than us, for sure. Well, I believe there is anyway, and I think there are a lot of people who would accept that.
Why do you believe that there is life on other planets?
The reason why I believe that life is prevalent throughout the entire cosmos is that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the cosmos by far. The next most abundant element which is reactive, the next one is helium but that doesn't do anything. It's just a nerve gas. The next one is oxygen. Oxygen and hydrogen combine explosively. So if they mate, you have water. Water is the fundamental solvent of life because it allows chemical reactions to go on and allows things to happen, cells and so forth. The next two most abundant elements are carbon and nitrogen. Now you've got virtually everything that makes up most of the important molecules in your body. These elements are everywhere. They are the first, second, fourth and fifth most abundant elements and they're reactive. In lots of places this accident must have happened that suddenly and life's chemistry sorted itself into becoming biology.
Do you think there will be a base on the moon?
Whether to have a base on the moon is part of the argument that we want to go further afield and therefore have to rehearse going further afield. If you're ever going to send men to Mars, you're probably going to want to be able to support them in a remote environment like the moon. It's different from being on a space mission, so there's that reversal part; it's how people react psychologically, and what physiological effects less gravity has on their body. You're going to learn all those things from a base on the moon, and there are some scientific things you can do on the moon that haven't been done from Earth, nor can be done from Earth. If you've built telescopes on the moon, for example, you can shield yourself from the radiations on earth, particularly in the radio telescopes. You don't hear all the traffic that goes through the airwaves on earth; you can listen to other things. These people on a moon base will have jobs to do. You have to live off the land; it's incredibly expensive to take things to the moon. If you can actually process stuff there and get the fuels and materials that you want, and so forth, then you're learning for when you want to go elsewhere. I don't believe we'll stop at the moon.
Do you think we will colonize other planets?
Whether or not we will colonize other planets is a case of predicting the future. Scientists are notoriously poor at predicting the future because they only want to predict within the realms of their knowledge. When it comes to predicting the future science fiction authors are actually much better at it, because they are less constrained by fact; they know they can let their imagination work. If you were to ask a science fiction author if they thought we would colonize other planets, there would be no question that they would answe with "Of course there is life out there," "Of course we'll travel here," "Of course we'll put a base on Saturn." If we ever colonize other planets, it will take a long time.
Will science one day prove that there's life out there?
Science will find life out there somewhere. If it's not on Mars, then we'll move on and look at Europa. If it's not on Europa, we'll be looking further afield than our solar system because we're building telescopes that will not just look at planets around other stars, but will analyse the atmospheres of planets around other stars. That was another thing we were going do on Mars to test this out. We were going to try to analyse the atmosphere on Mars to look for small amounts of compounds that wouldn't be there unless biology constantly produced them. On Earth, there are things in our atmosphere that are produced by biology. You'd look for these things to find life. Methane is a case in point. Methane shouldn't be there because it should be cleaned away by the oxygen. On Earth, methane has a lifetime of only about twelve years. The fact that there is methane in our atmosphere means that biology is continuously pumping it out. It would be the same on any other planet because making methane is the simplest biological reaction that we know to get energy. Producing carbon to give you hydrocarbon is gives you energy. That's what biology wants. It needs the power to run itself.
What are the benefits of space science to humanity?
This is one of the reasons why space science is so good as a science. It's because you only get one shot at it. So, there is a great deal of rigor in how to design, test, and come up with an experiment that you can actually do 100 million miles away without your intervention. Now, if you're part of a team that does that, then it skills you for all manner of other challenges where in fact, it's rather easier because what you're trying to do is only in the next room or in the next town. Building instruments, as we have done, that are able to work like this is invaluable for building instruments that you want to use on earth. Also it's not just for the people who actually do the space science, but if we can motivate people with space science into wanting to be space scientists (but in order to want to be a space scientist they'll have to learn science) then they can change their direction any time during that career progression. They could become, and they will become, it is undoubted, the hospital technicians that run the big pieces of equipment that diagnose you. (Doctors don't diagnose you anymore. It's instruments.) We need skilled people to run these instruments now; otherwise we get into long waiting lists. One of the things we were trying to do is make our instrument more rapid so that it would be a real-time instrument. Going out into the field in Africa, where you have loads of people with TB, if you can get them an instantaneous diagnosis, “You're at risk,” we pull you out of the line, “You're okay. You can go on your way.” If you can get that information that quick, you can imagine that you would see the benefits that you could get back here in Britain where you have to go to the doctor, get the appointment, have the doctor send you to the consultant, have the consultant refer you to the instrument, and have the instrument guy make the measurement and send the data back. How long have we now spent, during which time you were getting worse; you might be dying? If you could walk into somebody and they say [gesturing as if blowing into a tube], “I think you need treatment.” That's what it wants to be and that's the service people want.
What are the dangers of finding life on other planets?
One of the real dangers of playing this game of looking for life elsewhere is that, were you able to go somewhere where you found it and you want to study it in detail, then you've got to bring it back. Now, the minute you start putting things from one environment into another environment you have the potential to create a huge problem. It starts further back than bringing a sample. If we are going to Mars looking for life, if we take terrestrial life there, and take it and put it into a delicate ecosystem where life might have a very tenuous hold, we might wipe it out. The example is that there were no rabbits in Australia in the early eighteenth century, and nineteenth century. Ships took rabbits there because they were a quick source of meat for food. The ships took them there and the next thing you know, you've got a rampant problem with rabbits. There are other examples like that. Now, so if we were to take terrestrial life to Mars, it might just completely take over from the local life. The converse is true. If we brought samples back from Mars that had active organisms on them, then they might be adapted to very, very harsh conditions. Put them on earth into a very benign situation, and they might run riot, which could be worse than foot-and-mouth, Asian flu, avian flu, and you name it. So, it is a big responsibility. It's called “planetary protection.” We have to protect where we go. We have to protect earth. So, these are threats that I know about, and these are things for which we feel very responsible in doing our science. We were very, very careful not to do it with Beagle, and we're making sure that other missions don't do it either.