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Column: Why it’s important to look at the stars – literally

It’s good to be curious about a world outside our own, because being inquisitive in the past has gotten us where we are today, writes Conor Farrell.

Conor Farrell

OSCAR WILDE SAID ‘We are all in the gutter – but some of us are looking at the stars’.

In a time when the world has so many huge issues with society and economy, one might ask why people spend time looking out into deep space when they might be able to contribute to our more earthly problems. However, can people be blamed for taking some time out from the madness to indulge in a fascinating pastime? And do astronomers and space scientists contribute more to society than we actually think?

Most – if not all – of us have done at some stage what our predecessors did in their time: gaze up at the night sky and ask ‘Where did all that come from, what is it and what does it mean?’ Many of us had our passion for things, beyond our atmosphere,  fuelled by the late Sir Patrick Moore, who died last weekend after inspiring generations of people to look up.

As far back as I can remember, I was always interested in astronomy and I’m still finding out new things about it. I was lucky to live in a dark area which meant that I could easily spend hours spotting passing satellites, noticing how the Moon changes from night to night, and picking out star clusters with binoculars. My curiosity for science and astronomy was always encouraged and it was the likes of Sir Patrick Moore who continued to give me and countless others that enticement to keep on watching the night sky.

Finding Our Place in Space

It’s a science that at first seems so separate and distinct from the “real world”, yet is still inextricably linked to our everyday lives. It is thanks to those who ventured into understanding the universe that we have so much technology that we take for granted today. Many people say that astronomy and the exploration of space are a waste of time. On the contrary, I believe that it is these things that will drive our civilisation forward on our own planet and beyond for a long time to come.

This deep interest and passion for astronomy has existed in people for thousands of years. With the inquisitive nature of people, the world began to develop rapidly. With nations built and trade routes established, the citizens of Europe focused on survival and business on the ground. An improved version of a Dutch optical device, which helped spot enemy ships far out to see from the towers in Venice, was developed by Galileo. The device was, of course, the telescope.

Galileo used his telescope to observe Jupiter, a bright object that’s very easy to spot. Dotted around Jupiter he noticed four small specks of light. As he observed over hours and days, Galileo realised that these specks were moving around Jupiter, discovering what are now known as the Galilean Moons: Europa, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto. What he also realised with this discovery was that he had found proof that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe, as Church-dominated Europe vehemently believed.

Over the next several centuries, curiosity drove humanity to look further and deeper into space to find out more about how the universe works and why Earth and the other planets exist.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw huge leaps in our understanding of the universe. Until recently it was thought that the expansion of the universe would eventually slow down and stop, before it started to contract and finally destroy itself in something of a “Big Crunch”. However, in 1998 following a study of supernovae (exploding stars), it was found that the universe is not only still expanding, but that the expansion is actually accelerating.

Continued observations of the Cosmos will eventually provide us with the answers, and in the meantime doing so will push our technological limits even further. But is spending time and money on such endeavours worth it? Should we take our heads out of the clouds, so to speak, and take a look at issues here on our own planet first?

(Shutterstock/solarseven)

What’s The Point?

There are people who feel that astronomy and space exploration is a waste of time and money. A regular opinion is the classic ‘why spend billions of euro sending that satellite into space when there are so many people starving in around the world?’ The problem of world hunger is a very serious one, but the argument that we should not explore space because people are hungry is a self-defeating one: by the same logic, we should also stop spending millions on building motorways or undertaking computer technology research, because the same amount of money could feed a certain number of families for so long.

The fact is that space exploration and astronomy provide technologies that we use in our everyday lives and spending money on such projects has a long-lasting benefit to society. Indeed, it is thanks to satellites in space that we can monitor weather conditions and crops to help food production and decrease world hunger. Here are a few things that we probably take for granted, which were borne out of astronomy and space science.

  • Sky TV and Internet data is transmitted using satellites in orbit
  • Light-weight carbon-fibre material was used for prosthetic limbs after being developed for use in the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on board the International Space Station
  • The GPS and upcoming Galileo navigation systems are a network of space satellites that help stop us getting lost – and are vital for emergency and rescue services
  • The miniaturisation of electronic components was advanced by the need to make things small and light during the race to the Moon
  • The camera chips in your phone or digital camera are the successors of imaging technology used to photograph distant stars and galaxies
  • Cronidur 30, the material developed for use in the Space Shuttle’s fuel pumps, found another use in corrosive-resistant kitchen knives

The list of spin-off technologies that have resulted from space science and astronomy is endless. While the everyday benefits may not always be apparent or immediate, the fact that as a species we are driven to push ourselves to understand more about the universe accelerates research and development, much of which ends up in the hands of you and I, even if we don’t realise it.

Astronomers and astrophysicists try to understand the universe and how things within it work by making observations and applying the science that we know to those observations. To date, over 850 extra-solar planets have been discovered, and it’s thought that there may be billions of planets in the galaxy. But we are now asking a new question: can – or do – any of them support life? This is a question we are in the midst of answering and one I hope astronomers can answer soon.

You may be surprised to learn that we launched our first interstellar spaceship 35 years ago, and it’s still making discoveries. Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 to firstly explore the outer solar system and its planets, but to also to eventually explore the interstellar medium. At this moment it is crossing what’s known as the heliosheath, the outermost region of the Solar System. Once it passes this point within the next couple of years, Voyager 1 will be outside our Solar System and in the space between the stars.

Very recently, Voyager discovered extremely high magnetic fields in this section of the edge of the Solar System, something which can now be taken into consideration when designing and building new spacecraft – spacecraft that may carry humans in the distant future. Of course, there is also the sense of wonder and amazement at the heavens that raises so many philosophical questions for each of us: why are we here? Are there other people on other planets? Even if there are, will we ever get to meet them? Where did all the stuff out there come from? Where will it go? What happens when the Sun burns out? Will we have to find a new home?

Keep Your Head in the Clouds

Astronomy forces us to ask questions and to be curious. Many of these questions are very similar to those that were asked by our ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago. By being so inquisitive in the past, we were driven to be as advanced as we are today. We must continue to be so curious, as it will be to our benefit in the future. Eventually civilisation will move away from Earth, whether by organic expansion or by necessity and astronomy, astrophysics and space exploration will allow us to do that.

Gazing at the stars and wondering what’s out there is certainly not something that has no real relation to or effect on life on Earth: watching the stars and asking questions is what pushes our society to find out its capabilities and is most definitely something we should never stop doing. The stars will raise questions we may not be able to answer immediately, but in walking the path to the answer we will learn new things along the way.

Astronomy and science are not things to be left for others to explore, we can all take part and enjoy it just as much as the greats themselves have done. As Sir Patrick Moore once said, ‘I’m only a four-dimensional creature. Haven’t got a clue how to visualise infinity. Even Einstein hadn’t. I know because I asked him.’

Conor Farrell is an astronomer with Astronomy Ireland. He writes about science and astronomy on his blog conorfarrell.com.

Read: Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore dies at 89>

Read: Explainer: Why the world isn’t going to end – an astronomer reveals all>

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