We welcome back Natalie Starkey, a 2013 British Science Association media fellow, to celebrate the release of her book Catching Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System. Natalie told us that her experience writing for The Guardian during the media fellowship gave her the writing bug and the confidence to write Catching Stardust.

Natalie was thrilled to find out that the release of her first popular science book fortuitously coincides with International Women’s Day (8 March). As a science communicator and woman scientist in the public eye, Natalie hopes she can inspire young girls to follow in her footsteps…and reach for the stars.

Here she discusses her fascination with comets and asteroids, her stimulus for the book.

Catching Stardust

What do you find so fascinating about comets and asteroids?

It might seem strange to be fascinated by space objects that are so rarely seen. But when they are seen from Earth they are spellbinding. Comets and asteroids hail from the very beginnings of the Solar System. Comets were the first objects to have formed from a swirling cloud of gas and dust and asteroids represent the leftover building remnants of the phase of planet building. These small worlds hold a 4.6-billion-year memory of the Solar System, recording evidence of the events that took place during this time.

Why should we care about comets and asteroids?

Not only can these special space rocks tell us about our beginnings in the Solar System, having potentially delivered the key starting ingredients for life to Earth – namely organic matter and water – but they may play a role in our futures too. Whether we can learn enough about comets and asteroids to prevent one colliding with Earth in the future, or to mine them for their precious metals for use on Earth, are things to watch out for in the coming years. In fact, our reliance on technology and the chances of us being able to develop future more advanced and efficient technologies on Earth may rely on us returning mined metals from asteroids.

Is Earth going to get hit by a comet or asteroid in the future?

This is a great question but a hard one to answer. What we can say, at the moment, is that it is almost statistically certain a comet or asteroid is out there with its sights set on Earth. The issue is we just don’t know when it will meet us. But relax… the good news is that we look to be safe for a good 100 years or so, and the Earth has a very long history ahead of it, whether humans continue to thrive or not! However, scientists are actively working on ways to defend Earth from such potential cosmic threats. Some suggested protections involve deflecting the offending object; maybe by nudging it with a spacecraft or detonating an explosive near it to move it onto a different course before collision. Other ideas involve breaking it up into smaller pieces that would be hoped to burn up on atmospheric entry, presenting less of a risk to Earth’s inhabitants. This is a fairly new field of research so if a comet or asteroid has its final destination set as planet Earth in the next few years then it will almost certainly cause a few issues.

Should we mine in space?

We aren’t ready yet, but with the recent leaps made in reusable and affordable launches (e.g. SpaceX), and the advances made in the exploration of small bodies in space (such as NASA Stardust, ESA Rosetta, JAXA Hayabusa to name just a few) I predict that it won’t be long before humans make their first steps into space mining. I’m very excited about it. The Moon may play an important role but asteroids are also a key part of the investment. They have the potential to be worth billions in raw materials, so even if space mining set-up costs rise in to the multi-billions, money can still be made. I hope it happens – if done right and with a full assessment of the risks – because science will gain too. Scientists will be needed to work out where to go, and which objects to mine. In return, they might be allowed some of the precious bounty of mined products that are returned to Earth. The more we learn about the enigmatic comets and asteroids, the better are our chances of learning where we came from and protecting Earth in the future too.

Catching the Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System by Natalie Starkey is published by Bloomsbury Sigma and is available to buy here.

Watch Natalie Starkey on The Sky At Night:

Natalie Starkey was a British Science Association Media Fellow in 2013. Every year we provide placements for up to 15 researchers at UK news and media outlets. They spend 2-6 weeks getting first-hand journalism experience and mentoring, then reporting from our British Science Festival. You can read more about the scheme and how to support it on our Media Fellowships pages.