Astronomers are sometimes asked to defend public funding of their work. It’s difficult to answer because I really do think that there are lots of things we should do just because they’re interesting and enriching and that science shouldn’t be limited be what is economically beneficial. That said, astronomy is often given an easy ride because it is pretty and we have people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain on our side. One approach is talk about how much useful stuff astronomy has produced.
When you look around your life – and your house – you’d be surprised at how much is connected to astronomy and space exploration. Assuming you’re like me (i.e. living in the UK in 2013) you probably own several pieces of space-based technology. For a start you most likely use WiFi – in fact you might be reading this via WiFi right now! WiFi is based on work by John O’Sullivan working at CSIRO in Australia. The WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) provided by your router results from technology developed by Radio Astronomers in Australia, More than a billion people are using it in 2013!
There’s also your GPS device. GPS determines your position by receiving the signals given off by a network of satellites orbiting the Earth. By comparing the time delay in the arrival of the different signals, the GPS chip can figure out its exact latitude and longitude to within about 10m. The GPS system not only involves satellites but each of those satellites houses an atomic clock and must incorporate Einstein’s equations for general relativity in order to know its position precisely . It might be the most space-aged thing you own!
There’s a small chance that you sleep on a Memory Foam mattress or pillow. Memory Foam was created by NASA in 1966 (in fact it was created by people being contracted by NASA) to develop a way to better cushion and secure people going in to space . Similarly iodine water filters derive from NASA work in the 1970s to create safe drinking water on long missions and scratch-resistant glass coatings were created to create better visors for astronauts.
Contrary to popular belief, Teflon (the non-stick courting on saucepans) was not invented by NASA for the Apollo programme. In fact, it already existed and was simply used by NASA, who may have helped popularise it in industry at the time. I’ll also not mention CCDs here, since I’m no longer sure that astronomy had much to do with their success! .
Outside of your home, there are many other places where the technology results from space research. There is a great deal of medical tech that comes from space exploration, which shouldn’t be surprising given that both fields are often trying to see or detect things in tricky or unusual environments. Software for detecting things in satellite imagery is being applied in medicine, including to detect the signs of Alzheimer’s disease in brain scan data. The detection of breast cancer tumours was vastly improved by techniques in radio astronomy and instruments than began as ways to delicately monitor the temperature of fragile telescope instruments is being used in neonatal care today. At the airport the X-Ray scanner uses tech derived from X-Ray telescopes  and they may sometimes check your bag or coat for traces of certain chemicals by placing it in a gas-chromatograph which was originally designed for a Mars mission .
Astronomers are often also coders and software developers. As well being responsible for the 2008 banking fiasco (I’m joking, maybe) they are also good at creating software that others find very handy. The visualisation software IDL is many astronomers’ language of choice and was developed developed in the 1970s at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder . IDL is used in lots of research today in areas including defence, climate monitoring and by companies like Texaco, BP, and General Motors .
All of this is just the practical, modern stuff. Let’s not forget another thing you hold very dear: time itself. The calendar, especially it’s handy monthly segments, are astronomical in origin. The second, which seems so commonplace (i.e. it happens all the time) was defined in terms of the Earth’s rotation until astronomers realised that the length of a day was changing and so suggested a switch to defining it in terms of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Then we realised using an atomic clock would make more sense and handed our time-deiing powers over to the particle physicists .
Finally I just want to say that yesterday a paper appeared on the arXiv titled ‘Why is Astronomy Important?’ and it prompted me to finished this blog post about astronomy in everyday life, which I’ve had kicking around for ages. A big thanks to Marissa Rosenberg, Pedro Russo, Georgia Bladon, and Lars Lindberg Christensen for their timely paper – and their handy references!
UPDATE: There are also two handy booklets on this topic from the Royal Astronomical Society, you can find them here and here.
- If you’re in to digital photography then you may have debated the benefits of the CMOS and CCD imaging technologies. All digital cameras, camera phones and webcams use one of these two types of tech. CCDs were developed in 1969 at Bell Labs (the 2009 Nobel Prize was awarded to its inventors Smith and Boyle) and they became very popular in astronomy. CCDs are said to have popularised by their use in the Hubble Space Telescope but I’m not sure I buy it and can’t find evidence for it.