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18 June 2012

Not just about star-gazing: Astronomy changes our lives


This image of the Small Magellanic Cloud located 163,000 light-years from Earth, was rendered from data acquired by Ryan Hannahoe and processed by Robert Gendler, from equipment at the Fair Dinkum Skies Observatory in Australia -- an example of both the dazzling images we now have from space and the collaboration that characterizes space exploration and astronomy.

Through the capabilities of optics and photonics, astronomical telescopes and instrumentation systems have vastly increased humankind’s knowledge about the physical composition and history of the universe -- including our own planet and its natural phenomena.

And, again thanks to optics and photonics, these mind-bending data and dazzling images are not the purview of only astronomers and physicists. Images in particular -- arriving at Earth, as Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter observed in a recent talk, on light that left its origin in the cosmos in some cases before our solar system was formed-- are rendered on desktops and television screens everywhere, bringing the furthest reaches of space into homes, classrooms and offices.

Of course, new information prompts new questions.

Theorists such as Stephen Hawking pondering a Theory of Everything to explain some of those unanswered questions look for clues in the results of past and present missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Besides scientific knowledge, there are other very significant results of space exploration.

International missions bring nations together via collaboration. The LHC, James Webb Space Telescope and Extremely Large Telescope project are examples of major endeavors that align multiple countries and regions who otherwise compete in a number of ways. 

And spin-off technologies transferred from astronomical missions and space travel abound in our everyday lives.

For example, optical systems designers Roger Angel (University of Arizona, College of Optical Sciences) has recently turned his attention from space telescopes to efficient solar-energy systems -- using technology originally built for studying planets to directly improve the green-energy options for people on our planet.

A long list of products and innovations ranging from invisible braces and scratch-resistant eyeglass coatings, to digital cameras and medical imaging technologies, to satellite communications systems, the internet, and many more have been derived from inventions patented by NASA, the European Space Agency, and other agencies and organizations as a result of space exploration.

What’s next?

Leading astronomical instrumentation researchers and developers will meet in Amsterdam next month and reveal future directions for projects now in play and in planning. You can get an idea of some of what they’ll talk about in a recent special section of the journal Optical Engineering on space telescopes. (Guest editors Mark Clampin [James Webb Space Telescope] and Kathryn Flanagan [Space Telescope Science Institute] are both participants in the Amsterdam meeting, SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation.)

Get out that telescope -- keep looking up!

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