The author of a new book wants you to be as excited about space exploration as he is.

Philip Plait is a science communicator and astronomer, one who was part of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope team in the 1990s. A self-described “sci-fi dork,” Plait has been fascinated by the solar system since he was a child. Through public outreach that includes writing astronomy books and blogs and being interviewed for documentaries, Plait strives to spread his love of and curiosity about the cosmos to a lay audience. His latest book, Under Alien Skies, takes readers on a tour of the universe, giving scientifically accurate—and often witty—descriptions of cosmic experiences alien to Earthlings, everything from watching the sun set on Mars to death by black hole. Plait was recently interviewed by Air & Space Quarterly senior editor Diane Tedeschi.


Has anyone inspired you? What is your opinion of Carl Sagan?

I watched the TV series “Cosmos” in high school, and saw Sagan many times in his appearances on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” I thought Sagan was great. I still do! Pale Blue Dot is, in my opinion, one of the finest essays ever written in the English language, and Sagan was out there promoting science and critical thinking at a time when his colleagues were mocking him for it. He took a real career hit because of that. But now we understand far better how important this work is, and I love being in the position to do it.


What is the legacy of Hubble?

The most obvious is that it showed the public just how spectacularly gorgeous the universe is—that’s thanks to the visual artists who processed those images as well as the scientists. And because Hubble came along at the beginning of widespread internet use, the images were easily accessible.

Hubble also showed us that the universe is even more complex and weird than we thought. When pointed at an “empty” patch of sky and allowed to just sit there and take images for days and days, it found thousands of distant galaxies, showing us that there are indeed at least hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. I still get a kick out of seeing people react to that information for the first time, even though it’s been a couple of decades since the Hubble Deep Field images came out. And that’s just one science result. There are thousands just like it, and it’s still going! The impact on astronomy was—and is—profound.


Do you have a favorite Hubble image?

Yes. No! I mean, I have a lot. It’s hard to pick one over all of them. One favorite is of NGC 3603 (below), a young cluster of stars still shrouded by the gas from which they formed. One of the stars, called Sher 25, is surrounded by a faint bit of gas that was ejected as the star aged, a clear sign it’s going to explode as a supernova in the next 10 or 20 thousand years. I studied Supernova 1987A—a star just like Sher 25—for my Ph.D., so I’m biased. Sher 25 is only the second example of such a star we’ve ever found, so it’s special to me.

This view of NGC 3603—a giant star-forming nebula in the Milky Way—is one of Phil Plait’s favorite images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Where in the solar system would you most like to visit?

Saturn. Easy. I want to see the rings up close, plus take a tour of all its bizarre moons. Hyperion looks like a Styrofoam ball someone punched. Titan has a thick atmosphere and dunes made of hydrocarbons—and lakes of liquid methane! Enceladus is blowing geysers of water into space. Iapetus has a huge mountain range going all the way around, giving it the appearance of a walnut. There’s no bad place to look in the Saturn system.


Reading your book, I kept noticing how much beauty abounds in space. Is cosmic beauty to be expected?

I’ve thought about this for many years, and I’m still not sure what it means. Our brains are attuned to beauty, which is in part why we make art. But why is the universe itself beautiful? Why isn’t it ugly, or eerie, or awful to look at? It must have something to do with how our brains evolved to perceive natural structure, but you’d need to ask someone who knows the appropriate evolutionary biology and philosophy. I’m just glad it is beautiful.


What do you think is the strangest space phenomenon discovered so far?

Dark matter. Wait, no, dark energy! I mean, rotating black holes; or neutron stars that spew out lighthouse beams of energy; or colliding black holes slamming out huge gravitational waves that make space-time ripple; or how the universe was once smaller than a proton; or the weird fact it exists at all. Take your pick. I can think of lots more.


Have you seen a film that does a good job of depicting “alien skies”?

That would’ve been hard to answer a few years ago, but now it’s easier, since computer graphics can portray realistic scenery in high definition. “For All Mankind” has amazing scenes set on the moon and Mars and an asteroid—so real I felt like I was watching a documentary. “The Expanse” had fantastically realistic depictions of space settings, as well as how the science and tech would actually work. And it’s great fun watching the new Star Trek TV shows when they use locations we didn’t know much about back in the ’60s or even the early ’90s—like brown dwarfs, exoplanets, and newly forming star systems.


Have you ever visited a place on Earth that feels alien?

“Alien” is a relative term, isn’t it? I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., so moving to Colorado seemed like living on an exoplanet (especially since much of the environment there is so hostile it sometimes feels like it’s actively trying to kill you). I’ve been lucky enough to stand on the rims of a few volcanoes, visit some huge canyons (the Grand Canyon, but also the Black Canyon in Gunnison, Colorado), and watch glaciers calve in Alaska. Earth is a familiar planet, but for so many of us we’ve seen so little! And that doesn’t include places like Antarctica and the deep sea. Sometimes, I suspect the most alien planet we’ll ever find is our own. We just need to view it through the frame of mind that it is a planet, just one among hundreds of billions in the galaxy. Compared to other planets, we’re the aliens, and I think that’s a wonderful perspective to have. 

This article is from the Spring 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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