Dr Chris Lintott on space: “US astronomy has basically bet the entire NASA astrophysics budget on the James Webb Space Telescope”

We spoke to Dr Chris Lintott, presenter on the BBC’s The Sky At Night, about his beginnings in astronomy and what excites him today.


All About Space: How did you get involved with astronomy?

Dr Chris Lintott: Sir Patrick Moore. Seriously, I was 11, I listened to a lecture about the outer planets in my second week of secondary school, and it was Patrick talking and I don’t remember anything about the lecture except the end. He said “we don’t know much about the outer planets and if I came back in 10 years it would all be different.” It was the first time I’d heard an adult say “we don’t know anything!” And I thought I want a piece of that, and so I got interested. The school had an observatory, we used to hang out in there and get pizza delivered, which was critically important when you’re an 11 or 12 year old and trying to observe the sky, and that’s how I got interested.

AAS: And from then you got involved straight away in space and astronomy?

Lintott: Yeah I think so, I mean it’s quite rare to be a professional astronomer and an amateur astronomer, somebody who watches the sky as well as studies it. Most of my colleagues come from physics or maths backgrounds so probably have never seen a telescope, let alone look through one. That’s a bit harsh but that’s about right! So I’ve always done both, I’ve always looked up at the sky and I’ve always wondered what was there, so that led me to my career in astronomy as well.

Lintott said Sir Patrick had been a major influence in his astronomy career.

AAS: Was there anything from an early age in the night sky that particularly interested you?

Lintott: I was a big meteor spotting fan, so despite having the telescope at school, what I really liked to do was meteor counts. So I would lie in the back garden in December for the Geminids or something with a tape recorder and a piece of string, and when a meteor went past I would call out the time on to the tape and hold a piece of string up and measure the length of the meteor and then we’d write all this down and send it off. It was a way of doing science with nothing except eyes, and so I was hooked at that idea that I could do something in the back garden with really simple equipment that could make a contribution to science. If you look at what I do now, where I spend my day job running websites like Galaxy Zoo that get the public involved in doing science with nothing more than a web browser it’s almost full circle, we’ve gone from being in the back garden with a deck chair and piece of string to a web browser but the principle is still the same.

AAS: Are there any current missions now that really excite you more than others?

Lintott: I’m a big Curiosity fan. It’s not what I work on professionally but Curiosity on Mars is just fabulous. The science is fabulous, it’s going to tell us whether the conditions for life existed on the Red Planet and if so, for how long. We know Mars used to be a wet world but we don’t know how long it stayed wet. Was it flash floods or an ocean that lasted for millennia? And Curiosity will tell us that. But it’s also because of the pictures. Curiosity is about six feet high and has a stereo camera so there’s something about the pictures that make it really feel like you’re standing there, and for any of us that grew up on sci-fi and dreaming of being on another world, watching Curiosity rove around the planet is just fabulous.

NASA's Curiosity rover is one of Lintott's favourite current space missions.

But you know, pick any mission. I’m enjoying the last few years of Hubble as well. I’ve grown up with the Hubble Space Telescope and hopefully we’ve got a few years left of Hubble. But just the images that are coming down from that [are fantastic], especially now it’s doing big surveys, so spending a long time looking at patches of the sky or looking at a whole host of similar galaxies, and that really lets us piece together the physics and science of what’s happening, and all of that data is sitting there waiting to be mined by people. That’s really exciting too.

AAS: On that note, are you excited about the James Webb Space Telescope, the so-called Hubble successor due to launch in 2018?

Lintott: Yeah, I’m excited about JWST, it’s still a few years away so it’s a bit early. I think people have to realise that the James Webb is a very different telescope from Hubble, Hubble’s very much an astronomer’s telescope, it observes in the optical, in the infrared and the ultraviolet, and it’s designed to do pretty much all kinds of science. It can look at Jupiter as well as it can look at the distant universe. JWST is a telescope with at least initially one mission, it’s going to look at the very early universe, and it’s going to see the light maybe from the first stars, or at least the light from them exploding at the end of their lives, and so the scientist in me thinks that’s going to be amazing. It’s beginning to be a bit of a problem that we don’t understand how the beginning of the universe happened. But the images will be spectacular, but they’re not going to be quite what we expect from Hubble. So we need Hubble to keep going as long as possible, then we’ll take a break, and then we’ll enjoy JWST for what it is. Don’t load the pressure on it being Hubble’s successor, though! It’s its own mission. And it better succeed. US astronomy has basically bet the entire NASA astrophysics budget on JWST, there’s not much else going on in the US, and so we desperately need that to launch and to work well because the subject’s future at least in America depends on it.

Our Senior Staff Writer Jonathan O'Callaghan caught up with Lintott at Sir Patrick Moore's house.

AAS: Finally, what do you make of the discovery of the nearest planet to Earth, Alpha Centauri Bb? Was it a surprise to you to find such a world?

Lintott: I’m often not that surprised, I sorted of know what’s coming when I open my inbox and see the press releases, but this one made my jaw drop. I knew there were a couple of teams that had been looking for a planet around Alpha Centauri but again it makes you start thinking of sci-fi. This is a planet just 4 light years away. You have to realise 4 light years is still a long way; if you took the fastest spacecraft humankind’s ever built and you set it towards Alpha Centauri it would still take 75,000 years. But you start speculating about all sorts of different technologies for getting up to speed, you start thinking about how you might accelerate the spacecraft, and you could think about getting there in centuries. It begins to feel possible that we could go and visit a different solar system. That’s really cool. I think we should launch a probe now, even if it’s going to take hundreds of years to get there. Just knowing it’s on the way would be inspiring.

Dr Chris Lintott was speaking to All About Space at the launch of his new book, The Cosmic Tourist, co-authored with Dr Brian May and Sir Patrick Moore.

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