What is the point of astronomy?

After watching a rather ill-informed CBS opinion piece (via the Bad Astronomer) it made me think about a question that I get asked on a regular basis. "Why do we pay for space science/astronomy?" Strangely, in my experience the question generally comes from men (and occasionally women) of a certain age. I've not answered it here before so I thought I would take a few minutes to give a non-exhaustive list of some of the benefits and space science and astronomy:

  • Satellites (where do I begin?!)
    • Huge advances in weather monitoring and weather prediction have been made possible which has been used by the agriculture industry on a wide scale.
    • Monitoring of global climate by Earth observation satellites which has shown up the problem of global warming.
    • Satellite TV
    • Satellite telephones which allow people in remote places to keep in contact.
    • Disaster monitoring and warnings: think of the advance notice for hurricanes in the US each year, monitoring the spread of forest fires, monitoring crop disease and other forms of remote sensing.
    • GPS that now lets people navigate their way around.
    • GPS has given us tests of General Relativity
    • GPS can be used for weather monitoring (tracking the amount of water vapour) and a network of GPS stations are routinely used by the UK MET Office.
  • Miniturized electronics/microprocessor technology driven by weight reduction considerations for the space programme.
  • WD40 - the famous water dispersant - was developed for the Mercury space programme
  • The pumps used in the portable life support system for the Apollo EVA space suits were used in the design of artificial hearts.
  • Monitoring of the Sun not only tells us about the variation in the Sun's output (which contributes a bit towards warming and heating of the Earth) but knowledge of solar flares heading our way can help protect important infrastructure such as national grids (that keep the electricity flowing to your home and offices) and gives us advance notice of radio interference caused when the high energy particles from the solar flare hit our atmosphere.
  • Optical astronomers demand for better detection of photons of light was a large driver in making CCD technology cheaper and more reliable. CCDs are essential in digital cameras but is also used in things like stereotactic breast biopsy machines used to detect tumour positions.
  • Software created by astronomers to automatically identify stars in images has been adapted to identify cancerous areas in mammograms.
  • Radio receiver technology is partly driven by radio astronomers trying to make lower and lower noise amplifiers/receivers to pick up the faint signals from space. The mobile phone industry has benefited from this.
  • Radio interferometry can be used to precisely identify the positions of telescopes on the Earth and can be used in studies of continental drift, earthquakes.
  • X-ray detector technology and X-ray focussing (needed for X-ray telescopes in space) has improved the technology used in a range of medical imaging devices and in techniques which focus X-rays to destroy cancerous tumours.
  • Simulations of astrophysical objects using magnetohydrodynamic codes (modelling moving particles in a magnetic field) and simulations of plasmas are being used to help harness fusion power.
  • Huge astronomical databases are being used to improve database search software.
  • Astronomers find extreme environments (incredibly dense neutron stars, supermassive black holes etc.) which can test our understanding of the physics (and chemistry) of the Universe.
  • Watching for Earth impacting asteroids may be incredibly useful in the future as plenty of advanced notice would give us time to do something about it.
  • Astronomy and space science produce large numbers of scientists and engineers who go into a whole range of other professions.
  • Oh, and it produces some awe-inspiring images.
That is quite a big list and makes no reference to teflon or velcro! For more information on the benefits of astronomy check out the US National Academy Press which has a good book on the subject.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 19th Oct 2006 (02:05 BST) | Permalink
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