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Director Anu Ojha talks to New Scientist about his work, the future of space exploration and the next generation

Image from ITCCC Space Summer SchoolThis article was originally published by New Scientist, titled "UK space academy boss Anu Ojha on what finding aliens might mean" (Magazine issue 3252 , published 19 October 2019)


These questions were asked by New Scientist. See the original web version here.

"As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I grew up fascinated by space science and the world around me. As I grew older, this extended to a desire to understand societal and human issues, but I never really knew what I wanted to be apart from something that let me keep learning.

Explain your work in one easy paragraph.
I direct the UK's National Space Academy, which helps young people navigate towards careers in the space and wider science and engineering sectors. I have other roles nationally and internationally, including a lot of space science policy and government advisory work. I do some research: I'm a co-investigator on a new planetary drilling technology being developed by the University of Leicester. And most importantly, I still have opportunities to teach.

Being invited to be principal investigator for an International Space Station experiment conducted by Tim Peake was a tremendous honour and took my understanding of human space flight operations to much higher levels. My current work for the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the European Space Agency focuses on long-term planning for UK physics research and human and robotic exploration of the moon and Mars.

How has your field of study changed in the time you have been working in it?
In my lifetime, we have seen distant moons transformed into worlds of fire (Io is the most volcanic object in the solar system), of ice (Europa, Ganymede, Callisto) and possibly of life (Enceladus). We also now have a far better understanding of the impact of human activity on our planet, the most astonishing, diverse planet in the solar system.

If you could have a conversation with any scientist living or dead, who would it be?
To be honest, I am more stimulated by the real discussions I have with young researchers and students. They are the true crucibles of creativity and innovation of thought.

What achievement or discovery are you most proud of?
Teaching young people really brings home to me the fact that the 21st century is theirs, not my generation's. Sometimes, I think politicians need to be reminded about this.

What scientific development do you hope to see in your lifetime?
The discovery of microbial life elsewhere in the solar system would be one of the greatest achievements of science. But evidence of intelligence elsewhere in the universe would have a transformational impact on human civilisation, for better or possibly worse.

Do you have an unexpected hobby, and if so, please will you tell us about it?
I have been a freediver, scuba diver and skydiver for more than 20 years. When jumping out of a plane with friends, the sky transforms into an aerial playground with a horizon over 100 kilometres away. For that magical minute of free fall, the third dimension becomes accessible and you gain a new and very personal perspective of our home planet and our relationship with it. Even after nearly 1500 jumps, I never tire of it.

What is the best thing you have read or seen in the past 12 months?
The writings, activities and impact of advocates like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai challenge my generation in ways that may make us feel uncomfortable but which are essential for us to take on board.

OK, one last thing: tell us something that will blow our minds...
I think I first heard it in a speech by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees: "The greatest complexity we see in astrophysics and astronomy pales into insignificance when compared to the biological complexity of a simple ant."

Professor Anu Ojha OBE is director of the UK National Space Academy and a director of the UK National Space Centre. He is also a member of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the European Space Agency's Human Spaceflight and Exploration Science Advisory Committee and the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester."