Published: 07th September 2021
Peaceful uses of space preferred to investing in war: Why UK Astrophysics professor Carole Mundell thinks we should all care about space
Prof Carole Mundell, who is also the International Science Envoy with the UK government, recently delivered a GREAT Talks session in collaboration with the British Council
In recent times, space has managed to catch everyone's fancy. With more private players coming in, including Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, space just got a lot more exciting. But before we manage to set up shop on Mars, there's still miles and miles of space that has to be covered and taken care of. Space that human beings have been using to further technological development.
To tell us why we should care about space, Prof Carole Mundell — who is the head of Astrophysics and a professor of Extragalactic Astronomy at the University of Bath and also a Fellow at the Institute of Physics — delivered a GREAT Talks session in collaboration with the British Council titled 'Why we should all care about Space'. Prof Mundell has also been appointed as UK's International Science Envoy with the Department in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) earlier this year. She has also served as the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Before she delivered her GREAT Talks lecture, however, she sat down to satisfy our curious minds about space. Excerpts from a very interesting and insightful chat:
What is the space ecosystem that you're referring to?
The space ecosystem includes all human-made assets orbiting above the Earth — whether currently operational, no longer working or broken into millions of pieces of junk — the connected systems on the ground that control or monitor them and the natural environment in which they all operate. We are now having to think the same way about the Moon, Mars and other bodies in the solar system where humans and their technology will visit, land and be established.
What can be the possible repercussions if the space ecosystem is not cared for?
We are reaching a point where low Earth orbit is becoming very crowded. When satellites collide with one another or are broken in other ways, the debris produced remains in orbit, clogging up space and creating collision hazards for other satellites — like a congested highway with no rules. This happens very quickly and the intent can easily be misunderstood. The potential for unintended international conflict is concerning. The space ecosystem is also supported and controlled by ground-based systems. We need to protect them as well. These are all human-made risks but we are also at the mercy of space weather — when the sun produces flares of charged particles that stream towards the Earth and can damage our working satellites and, in some cases, induce large flows of electricity in our ground-based subsystems that threaten national infrastructure.
What got you interested in space while growing up and when did you decide that you would like to research space?
I was very good at solving puzzles and doing Math. This led me to be fascinated by Physics and its application to studying cosmic phenomena such as stars, galaxies, and back holes. I particularly like the innovation process and collaborative teamwork when theorists, engineers and experimentalists work together. This is how my research teams are designed and how we make breakthrough discoveries.
Tell us about your role as an International Science Envoy. What is it that you do? How has your previous experience as a Chief Scientific Adviser helped you manage your current role?
I oversee the work of the global Science and Innovation Network and the Global Science and Emerging Technology Department in the FCDO. I showcase UK's excellence in Science and innovation and help our teams build lasting collaborations in Science and Technology as a force for good. My previous experience as Chief Scientific Adviser gave me deep experience of providing scientific advice in government and working at the evidence-policy interface across a very wide range of topics from climate change to COVID-19 — something I also use in my Envoy role to advise other governments around the world, who are increasingly interested in setting up similar structures and mechanisms to improve their policy development and emergency responses in crisis.
Do you think we are capable of caring about the space ecosystem when we are struggling to deal with the earth's ecosystem itself?
I think it is a must. This question is rather like saying — do we have time to care about polluting the oceans when we are struggling with air pollution. Our planet is an immensely complex but holistically connected system and despite humanity’s capacity for thinking big, we can also be very siloed in our focus. We also use our space system to understand our planet and how it is changing, to predict extreme weather events that are intensifying due to climate change and to provide critical services on which medical, emergency services, agriculture and many other industries rely. Now is a very good time to ensure we can protect all of this for now and the future.
A lot of people are critical of space exploration, especially how it needs billions to fund. What would you tell them to make them understand about the need for space exploration?
Space exploration is one piece of the wider space science industry. Humans have always explored new frontiers and it draws us together to know that some of our kind have experienced other worlds. The technology acceleration and the creation of skilled jobs in engineering, technical and scientific roles brings great benefit to countries that harness the opportunity, providing inspiration and opportunity for the next generation. Experiments that are not possible on Earth can be performed in micro-gravity and the medical advances needed to send humans safely to a planet like Mars will address long-standing illnesses and conditions on Earth. In my personal opinion, pursuing peaceful uses of outer space are preferential to investing in ever sophisticated ways of waging war or destroying our terrestrial environment.
Do you think youngsters are more interested in space exploration now, especially with the introduction of private players like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic?
Yes, I think these missions catch the imagination, but I am also a fan of robotic missions. The most recent mission to Mars, in which NASA landed the Perseverance rover and its helicopter, have given us remarkable views of the surface of the planet that were unimaginable when I was a youngster and the scientific return of such a mission is high. I watched the landing on TV whilst at the same time I was able to look out of my window and see Mars shining brightly in the sky. Mind blowing!