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Khalid M Al Qassimi: Let’s Talk About Science in the Skies

Astronomer, Khalid M Al Qassimi.

Have you ever thought about stars and think why do they twinkle? Or is there really life on mars, these are questions that are always asked, yet never fully explained. Although astronomy is part of our life and education, it’s not fully understood- maybe because it’s too difficult to understand or you’re worried at the prospect of life beyond Earth. As space stations, such as NASA creating new programs and launches to discover more fascinating knowledge, we thought its within good timing to ask an expert; Khalid M Al Qassimi, on his opinions and to finally de-code technical terms to us, so that we can all understand Science in the Skies.

What is it about astronomy that made you want to explore it more?

I believe everyone has a natural interest in astronomy. Whether it is from the beauty of the photos online or from gazing at the sky at night, astronomy always seems to seduce its students. For most, myself included, seeking answers of what is not known is the greatest goal one can tend to. Astronomy has the unique characteristic of satisfying this craving of knowledge, and it does so in a way that both makes one humble and aware of their greatness within the universe. This, I believe, is what most people cherish about astronomy, and it is also what has captivated me.

Let’s Talk About Science in the Skies
Earth Horizon Spacescape

What is the most fascinating thing you have discovered, and why?

I have not really “discovered” anything of significance per se, but I have learned quite some interesting things. They are so many that I would need books upon books to explain each! We know that, on average, each star has at least one planet orbiting it, and we guess that a planet is possibly habitable if it has just the right size and mass and distance to its sun, if it has the right amount of atmosphere, and so on. If we take the number of stars that exist in our home galaxy, the Milky Way, we have about three hundred billion stars. That is, at the very least, three hundred billion planets. Nobody knows the real value, but if we just throw out a small percentage, say 0.0001%, and assume that’s the percentage of planets that are possibly habitable by simple single-celled organisms (because of the planet’s mass, size, distance to their star, etc.), then that is three hundred thousand planets that are possibly habitable! But why stop at the Milky Way? A typical sized galaxy could contain about the same as the Milky Way, about three hundred billion stars. How many stars are there in the universe? For example, the Hubble Space Telescope, how many planets do you think are in this photograph? One might try to count all the little stars and say that’s how many planets there are. But there’s one small caveat: other than the obvious few stars, every single point of light you see is a galaxy in its own right. Keep in mind that a typical galaxy contains about three hundred billion stars, and each star has at least one planet orbiting it. In this one photograph, there are about 10,000 galaxies. Simple math shows us that there are at least 3,000,000,000,000,000 (three quintillion) planets in that one photo alone. If we take our previous percentage of planets that are possibly habitable by simple, single-celled organisms, 0.0001%, that is three billion planets that are possibly habitable in that one photo alone.

Let’s Talk About Science in the Skies
Hubble Ultra Deep Field

It’s always a burning topic, but is there really life on mars?

Extra-terrestrial life is always a controversial topic, where one can try to pump in absurd scenarios that simply makes no sense. The short answer in relation to Mars is “we haven’t found any”. The long answer is even worse. The golden sign is usually liquid water. Liquid water is often a good indication for some form of life, even though it’s not necessary to have life where water exists.  This is because water can take the form of a liquid at temperatures that natural organisms can usually survive in. There are some signs that water used to exist on the Martian surface, specifically what looks like dried rivers. The main pro-life theory says that liquid water is now available under the surface of Mars, hence saying life could exist under the surface. This could be possible, especially since Mars has a very thin atmosphere, not enough to protect it from harmful solar rays. Life going underground could protect themselves from these rays. These are all speculations, and we can only know the truth with more missions to mars.

So far, we have only discussed primitive life, very simple single-celled organisms. The question everyone wants answered is not about primitive life, but intelligent life. Intelligent life could be thought of as life that can communicate using some electro-magnetic waves, or any form of actions that are ‘above’ just reproducing and sustaining itself. This question is easier to answer for Mars. In short, unless this life really is living underground in some sci-fi-styled homes and are good at hiding their signatures (which really is just a laughable absurd conclusion), there exists no intelligent life on Mars. Some may even argue that there exists no intelligent life in our whole galaxy. They have their own arguments, but we can bypass that and ask a more plausible question: is there life in the universe? Some believe it is impossible that we are alone in the universe, but that life is very rare. People who believe otherwise usually bring up the Fermi Paradox: If there is intelligent life in the universe, some must have developed enough to make contact with us.

Stars are completely fascinating, we can all agree; however, do you think we will ever be able to travel to the stars, and why do they twinkle?

One of the hardest things to do is to distinguish between how something looks to us versus how it is, and a star’s twinkle is an example of this instance. Stars appear to twinkle to us, not because they do. Typical stars are usually at a stable brightness, changing mostly when they are about to die. However, the light coming from a star does have to pass through our atmosphere, where it is absorbed and remitted, appearing to twinkle to us. If we were to travel to one of those stars and see them as they are, they would be as stable as the determination we would need to get there. Getting there is not as simple. If science, and technology, continues to develop we would eventually reach at least the nearest stars. There already are a few proposed methods to get there, some absurd, some plausible. Some believe if we send a self-sustaining spaceship in the direction of the nearest star, and if we have the astronauts reproduce, we would eventually reach the nearest star in a few hundred generations. I don’t think that’s the sort of travelling that excites youngsters today.

Let’s Talk About Science in the Skies
Lunar Eclipse

With international space station projects, and our current knowledge, do you think there is more to discover?

I believe that not only is there more to discover, but that what we have discovered so far is not even an atom in a universe of knowledge. The International Space Station orbits at about 400 kilometres from the surface of the Earth, and it is producing some quality science from that distance. However, that is barely even leaving Earth. In contrast, the closest astronomical body is the moon, which orbits the Earth at about 400,000 kilometres. That is even forgetting the distance to our star, 146,000,000 kilometres. Even then, we are not considering the distance to the nearest star, or the centre of our galaxy, or even the distance to the nearest galaxy. We may think we know so much, like what stars are made of, their life cycles, what types they are, but that is barely scraping the surface of what we can know! There are phenomena happening almost daily that people are trying to understand, such as gamma ray bursts, which are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang. As soon as we think we know everything about them, something happens that makes us doubt some of our understanding of it and we are sent back to contemplate where we went wrong. Even then, at least we know something about them. There are other phenomena like Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), which are things that have only been seen thirty-seven times in the last ten years. There is a joke running around that says we have more guesses about what FRBs are than we have actual FRBs. There is so much that is not known, and these examples are only two out of a universe of phenomena that we can know, but we don’t because we don’t have enough scientists trying to find out. We need more people who can work in science fields to work on this and tell us what is happening. That is to say nothing about the phenomena that we don’t know! In short, we have developed a lot in the last century, but space exploration is barely in its infant stages. Making that analogy to babies, space exploration has just seen the light of reality, and has not even begun crying out loud. For that, we need a lot more time, and much more dedicated scientists.