By Lewis Dartnell
Lewis is a UK Space Agency research fellow at the University of Leicester, and author of ‘Life in the Universe – A Beginner’s Guide ’ and the illustrated children’s book ‘My Tourist's Guide to the Solar System ’. This blog post was written as part of the series of posts on the latest Public Attitudes to Science  survey being conducted by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and Ipsos MORI.
There is something about the stars, planets and galaxies in outer space that really seems to capture people’s imagination. And this certainly came across in the last Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey. Humanity has always been a curious species, constantly peering towards the horizon to wonder what lies beyond. A few centuries ago, courageous sailors set into the unknown to discover new lands and today we’re able to explore whole other worlds.
At the moment, we conduct most space exploration by proxy – sending sophisticated robots to do the dangerous work. Indeed, during some of the qualitative workshops conducted as part of PAS 2011 (in which I participated as one of the on-hand scientists) many people associated robotic technology with space exploration more than any other area, including manufacturing and security.
Right now we have two robots trundling across the dusty Martian surface, a probe sending back gorgeous photos of Saturn and its glittering rings and varied moons, and another racing towards the very edge of the solar system for our first close-up look at Pluto. And our planet-hunting telescopes are spotting scores of planets orbiting other stars in the night sky: we are right now in the midst of a Golden Age in discovering new worlds. It’s this sense of adventure that I think really inspires people about space exploration, and it won’t be long before any of us could take a holiday that is truly out of this world.
So far, only around a hundred people have been into space – astronauts are a far more select bunch than even kings and queens. Spaceflight has been a very expensive and relatively dangerous endeavour, but all of this is about to change as private corporations take over from national organisations like NASA in building spaceships. Many companies are working towards making space tourism a viable industry, and are already testing innovative launch vehicles and modules for hotels in Earth orbit.
Judging from the findings of PAS year on year, as well as the articles in newspapers and magazines and big-budget shows on television, there is a great appetite for finding out about the latest discoveries in space exploration. This seems to be particularly true for my own field of research, and I’ve been able to capitalise on this great interest in my science communication work. I am an astrobiologist, which means that I look into the possibility of there being life beyond our Earth.
I focus my work on our next-door neighbour planet Mars and how microorganisms, or more importantly signs of long-dead life, might survive the cosmic radiation on the surface. The more we learn about extreme forms of life on Earth, and the incredible ranges of conditions they can tolerate, the more confidence we have that life might be found on some of the other planets and moons in our solar system, or on these remote worlds orbiting other suns in the galaxy that we’re only just discovering now.
And Britain is at the forefront of much of this astrobiology research – we are playing a leading role, for example, in the building of the ExoMars rover that will launch in 2018 to search for signs of life beneath the Martian surface. The really exciting possibility is that it is our generation, with the advanced robotic probes and telescopes now being built, that has the capability to find life on another world, and for humanity to realise that we are not alone in the Universe.
Personally, I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of PAS 2014. Not only does it help me know where to target my science communication work, but it’s also really good to see what people think about the research I’m involved in. Understanding the public’s impression of how science works, and the ways in which it impacts all of our lives, as well as people’s hopes and concerns, is really important. The thing I wonder most about, though, is how the general public might react if astrobiological efforts are successful and we do detect life on another world. Research scientists like myself will be really excited, but I’m curious what the nation as a whole might make of a fundamental discovery like this.