Seeing beyond the stars: Why astronomy counts on Earth

Editor’s Note: Robert Massey is Deputy Executive Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society in the UK where he oversees public engagement and policy development. Before joining the RAS, he conducted PhD research on the Orion nebula and was formerly Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This is an update of an article that was published in March 2015.The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Astronomy, one of the oldest of sciences, has fueled our imaginations, writes Robert Massey

But astronomy is also a science that pushes technology to the limits, he says

Massey: Astronomy reminds us that we are really a very small part of an enormous cosmos

CNN  — 

If you’ve been looking up after sunset in the last few months, then may well have seen what looks like a very bright star in the sky. That ‘star’ is the planet Venus, a world that shines so prominently that it occasionally gets reported as a UFO.

A destination for many space probes, Venus is very visible to us on the ground – but has also been photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomy, one of the oldest of sciences that has fueled the imagination of humanity since we became capable of complex thought, with monuments as old as Stonehenge in England marking the movement of the Sun and Moon across the sky, and early civilizations creating myths around the patterns of stars that make up the constellations.

Astronomer Robert Massey

That sense of wonder continues unabated in the modern era, though we sometimes seem more disconnected than our ancestors from the world (and universe) around us.

Children and adults alike visit observatories and planetaria, download images originating from spacecraft in orbit around planets, asteroids and comets, and grab the chance to look through a telescope without hesitation.

An early interest in astronomy inspired many of today’s leading scientists and engineers, including Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, who found his inspiration through a telescope at the age of eight.

This is a science that pushes technology to the limits, eking out the faintest of signals and using complex techniques to put together models for worlds, stars and clusters of galaxies that we are unlikely ever to visit.

And these demands set the toughest of challenges. To take one example, the Hubble Space Telescope (named after American astronomer Edwin Hubble) is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Putting a telescope in space had been proposed as far back as the 1940s, a good decade before the Soviet Union’s Sputnik transmitted its first pings from orbit.

Hubble construction began in the late 1970s, ready to be carried into orbit by NASA’s space shuttle. Delayed by the Challenger disaster, the telescope finally entered service in 1990, when scientists discovered that its mirror was the wrong shape – a flaw repaired by another shuttle crew who installed a correcting system three years later.

Since those early setbacks, the Hubble telescope has transformed astronomy. From its vantage point above the blurring effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, it helped scientists discover that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, powered by a still mysterious “dark energy,” sent back images of forming solar systems and planets around other stars, and showed that almost every galaxy has a giant black hole at its center.

All the while, this remarkable instrument set a new bar with exquisite images that have entered public consciousness like no others, featuring in publications all over the world.

Although not obvious, astronomy has an often unexpected impact on many areas of everyday life too.

Hubble and all modern optical telescopes depend on digital sensors (charge-coupled devices or CCDs) that are far more sensitive to light than photographic plates ever could be.

Though astronomers were “early adopters,” similar sensors are now used by dentists and oncologists, and are found in almost every mobile phone camera. CCDs are big business and Instagram would probably not exist without them.

These new detectors and others like them produce vast datasets that need extensive analysis. The VISTA system in Chile produces no less than 300 gigabytes of data every night – equivalent to about 600 CDs of music.

Handling “big data” on this scale has been aided by volunteer “citizen scientists” – one of the best known examples is Galaxy Zoo which uses hundreds of thousands of people to classify galaxy shapes – and also by innovative software that picks out objects of interest.

Coders who worked on the PathGrid project took this second approach and adapted it to help hospital radiographers map cancerous tumors, making it easier and quicker for surgeons.

In radio astronomy, the extraordinary Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will eventually have thousands of radio dishes and hundreds of thousands of smaller detectors spread across Australia and Southern Africa.

As a super sensitive telescope, SKA promises to take on some of the bigger questions in astronomy, from investigating dark energy to testing Einstein’s theory of relativity.

It isn’t hard to see that the technologies developed for SKA could be transformative. For the telescope to work, engineers will have to build a network to handle a torrential flow of data equivalent to 100 times the current global internet traffic, and develop sustainable power supplies that can work without much maintenance in remote deserts.

The spinout prize could be far better connectivity and one without the energy-hungry infrastructure that systems need today. Radio astronomers have good form in this area and in the 1990s developed wi-fi networks, like the one I’m depending on as I write this article.

Most professional astronomers are of course not in it for the serendipitous technologies and techniques that turn out to be so useful in other areas of life.

Perhaps the best justification for sciences like astronomy is the way it forces us to step back from everyday concerns and reminds us that we are really a very small part of an enormous cosmos.

If these big questions and the undeniable beauty of the sky can together inspire us to think a bit more about science as a whole, it can be no bad thing.