The opinions expressed in this news editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Escapist.
Space porn. A crude, yet descriptively apt name for spectacular images of the cosmos. You don't have to be an astronomer to appreciate these pictures that capture a glimpse of the majesty of what lies beyond our little world; in fact, it isn't at all uncommon to see people with little to no interest in science nonetheless marvel at space pics, liking them on Facebook and even setting them as their desktop wallpaper.
Astronomy itself, as a field of study, fails to evoke this same sense of awe among the masses. Sure, you'll have the few, like myself and some among you readers, that remain fascinated by the small advances we continue to make in our understanding of the universe. But public interest in space exploration peaked with the lunar landings. The Mars rover saw somewhat of a resurgence, but since then, the public seems to have become jaded to the headlines.
Space launches no longer inspire awe. Instead, people scoff at news of repeated delays in launching rockets - which, we should all take a moment to appreciate, is literally rocket science, the thing we use as our yard stick for the most difficult activity imaginable. So many new exoplanets continue to be discovered beyond our Solar System by Kepler - including two new Earth-likes this week - that people don't know whether they should still care. Over the years, there have been so many headlines suggesting that evidence for life on Mars may have been found that when some of the most significant evidence ever published was released this week, it wasn't met with the level of public interest it warranted.
In short, we, as a society, have grown impatient. When we don't see immediate, tangible results that can be represented with striking imagery - like a man planting a flag on the moon - we stop caring. We are culturally focused on destinations rather than journeys, on reward rather than struggle.
Every failure, setback, and negative test result is as important to science as the successes, but scientists will forever struggle to convey that to the public. And as public interest decreases, so does funding, and without funding, progress grinds to a halt.
That's why space porn is important to science. That's why this new, higher-resolution image of one of Hubble's most spectacular photos is more significant than its use as desktop wallpaper may suggest. Apart from the immeasurable amount of data in the image that scientists will be dissecting for years to come, this is a picture of the finish line. This is the striking imagery that reminds us of what's out there and why it's worth pursuing. This is the kind of symbol that captures the pioneering spirit of humanity and will inspire continued interest in space exploration.
Ultimately, it is not the work of any individual scientist that will be most meaningful to the advancement of science, but rather how widely our culture embraces science. Space imagery is able to transcend the realm of scientific analysis and be viewed as art, something that defines culture.
So bring on the space porn.