Lord Rees gives his Newton Lecture

6 March 2013

Robotic exploration of the solar system and human adventures in space were among the predictions made for the next few decades by Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, in a talk given at the Institute on Thursday 28 February.

Lord Rees with Sir Peter Knight

Speaking during IOP’s Newton Lecture, given as the winner of the Institute’s Newton Medal, Professor Martin Rees mentioned the quick initial pace of the first space programmes, adding: “If this momentum had been maintained there would be footprints on Mars by now.”

After describing previous unmanned spacecraft’s visits to the other planets, he said: “I hope that during the coming decade our solar system will be explored and mapped by flotillas of tiny robotic craft.” Speculating on whether there would also be humans on missions to Mars or beyond, he added: “I think there will, but as adventurers rather than for any scientific purpose.”

Lord Rees also predicted that within the next few decades telescopes will be able to directly image planets orbiting other stars – which he compared to “looking for a firefly next to a searchlight.” Currently these exoplanets can only be detected indirectly, by looking for wobbles in the motion of a star or dimming of its starlight.

The lecture covered the whole spectrum of astrophysics from planetary formation and stellar evolution to cosmology and the ultimate fate of the universe.

Comparing the current state of physics to when he began his career, when relativistic astrophysics was first being developed, he added:  “Today is an equally good time for young researchers. The pace of advance has crescendoed.”