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She brings astronomy down to Earth

By Tyler Dukes
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Kelly Oakes is a freelance science writer and a media officer at the Institute of Physics in London. At Scientific American’s Basic Space (, she writes about astrophysics and the universe at large. Follow her on Twitter as @kahoakes . Questions and answers have been edited.

Q: What first sparked your interest in space?

Looking up at the stars. I was never really what you’d call an amateur astronomer. I didn’t have a telescope, but when I was younger my family used to go on holiday around the U.K., and we’d often stay in fairly remote places. I remember walking along these pitch-black country roads staring up at the sky and just thinking how incredible it all was. I even caught the odd meteor shower.

Q: Space agencies in many countries have seen massive cutbacks. How is this affecting space science?

I don’t claim to know too much about science or space policy. But what I do know is that the amount spent on science in general is tiny compared to some other governmental budgets. And, as many scientists have said a million times, it gives an amazing return – not just in terms of learning about the universe, but the spinoffs from that, too. Right now, scientists are investigating how humans can survive in the harsh conditions of space. What they learn during those experiments won’t just apply to a handful of astronauts; it will help us humans back here on Earth, too.

Q: Do you think these cutbacks are affecting public interest in space science?

From what I’ve seen, public interest in space science is as high as ever, if not more so. Thanks to TV shows like “Wonders of the Solar System” and the physics double whammy of the Higgs (boson) discovery and NASA’s Curiosity rover landing on Mars last summer, there seems to be a real appetite for physics.

Q: What are you most excited about when it comes to the study of space?

One of my personal hopes for the future of space exploration is that we get probes to some of the moons in the outer solar system. A project to land a boat on Titan (a moon of Saturn) and explore its methane seas lost out to yet another Mars mission last year as part of NASA’s Discovery Program. I’m as excited about Mars as the next person, but what we’ve seen so far on moons like Titan, Enceladus (Saturn) and Europa (Jupiter) shows there’s a lot to explore there, too.

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