Final Frontiersman

Author Chris Impey talks about leaving the planet, the mysteries of dark matter and sex in space

Chris Impey is the deputy head of the UA Astronomy Department and the author of several books, including Beyond: Our Future in Space, which explores how private-sector companies are shaping the future of space exploration. This Q&A is edited and condensed; see the entire interview at

Talk a little bit about what Beyond is all about.

I sort of felt that most people saw the space program was in the doldrums. You know, Americans can't put an astronaut in orbit and it's 40 years plus since we've been to the moon. You know the average person thinks it isn't really happening. But meanwhile, the private sector is gearing up and there are some pretty exciting things happening, so I felt it was time to sort of look at the space program and our future in space.

How much longer before we see more people going up in space?

We're still in the tricky experimental phase, and we've seen some significant setbacks for Elon Musk and for Orbital Sciences and for Richard Branson and all in the last year, so we know that it's hard putting people back up in orbit, but more than a dozen private space programs are under way and most of them are looking to put people up there at some point although some are only doing cargo for now. So I think it's going to be three to five years and then we'll start seeing quite a lot of astronauts.

And it will be done by the private sector.

Yeah, NASA's smart and they're partnering with the private sector. They know they can't do it on their own with a stagnant budget and too many commitments, so these are billionaires with a lot of money to burn, and we haven't even heard from some of them. Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, that's the most secretive of the private space companies and he's got awfully deep pockets, so, yeah, I think the money from the private sector could dwarf what NASA can bring to the table.

You mentioned that people may not be aware of some of the stuff that's going on, but NASA's got a pretty interesting project with the UA with the OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission.

Yeah, and so they're still doing some great stuff, and I think NASA is caught in this same conundrum that existed in the space program for decades, which is robots, like OSIRIS Rex, that can take you to the edge of the solar system. They're cheaper. You don't have to worry about people and looking after the people and keeping them safe, but people inspire most of us. The idea of humans in space, doing interesting, exciting things, being explorers is inspirational. So, if you only do it with robots, I don't think the general public would be that interested. The scientists would love it. They get a lot of bang for the buck.

Talk about the dangers of people in space. We're really not designed for zero gravity, are we?

Not at all, and most of the astronauts who spent a year or more in orbit, and that's more than a dozen, have had health problems when they came down. So there are problems, and just now project those forward to a situation where you're on another planet for years or perhaps the rest of your life, or you form a colony and you start to have children and grandchildren born in a different environment, and humans are going to change if that ever happens.

Have astronauts already had sex in space?

It's continually denied by both NASA officials and their Russian counterparts. The scuttlebutt is that, yeah, it probably has happened and we just don't know about it. Astronauts are pretty good at keeping secrets. I mean, yeah, it's going to happen, and be thought of as a landmark. Now that we've had the first person in space, the first woman, the first spacewalk, the first baby born in space? The first human born off-Earth? That would be an extraordinary landmark in human history.

You study some very weird stuff out there. The super-massive black holes. What is a super-massive black hole?

It's just a beefier version of the black hole that's left when a massive star dies. Those are conventional black holes. They're just condensed objects, so dense that not even light can escape left when massive stars die. And they're just a few times the mass of the sun. But nature knows how to make black holes a lot bigger than that. There's one that's four million times the mass of the sun at the center of our own galaxy, and the ones I study are much farther away in other galaxies, and they go up to four or five billion times the mass of the sun, which is pretty extraordinary. It's a black hole that's nine orders of magnitude than the death of a single star.

What do we know about dark matter?

Not enough! It's been one of the big mysteries of the universe, because for every particle, you know, proton, neutron, electron, in our bodies or in all the stars in the universe, there seem to be about six or seven times as many of these dark matter particles. So it dominates the mass of the universe, and, at the moment, we're kind of mystified as to what dark matter is. But we do think it's a fundamental particle. It's not rocks in space or things that didn't quite turn into stars, or dust particles. It's something fundamental. Some new part of physics.

Are we going to find life out there sometime soon?

I hope in my lifetime. The work on exoplanets is just going gangbusters. Twenty years ago there were zero planets known beyond the solar system. None. And the number goes up every day. It's probably about 4,000 that we now know. And a couple hundred of those are Earth-like, and maybe a fraction of those are habitable and Earth-like, so we're projecting 20 billion habitable and Earth-like worlds in just the Milky Way galaxy, and the odds that they're all dead, I think, are very low.