Telescope to table: everyday inventions from astronomical research

Astronomy and Astrophysics research can often seem removed from real life, but the pursuit of better telescope technologies has often led to revolutionary everyday inventions. Choong Ling Liew-Cain, a third year PhD student details some of the way Astronomical research has filtered down into our everyday lives.

One of the questions I get asked frequently as a science communicator and astronomer is along the lines of ‘Why does Astronomy matter to me? Everything you look at is too far away to ever get to, and you spend a lot of money on telescopes which have little to no effect on our lives on Earth’. I knew that there were a lot of technologies that have come out of space science and astronomy, but couldn’t name that many specifics. I spent a while looking up some things and have compiled the list below incase I (or you!) are interested or want to answer this question next time you are asked. 

Hubble Space Telescope Credit: NASA

Technology that you will have used

  • Charged Coupled Devices (CCDs) were invented by people trying to create memory storage devices. They were deemed to be unsuitable for use as they were very sensitive to light. Instead of the idea being discarded, astronomers continued developing CCDs and made them useful for telescopes. Now, CCDs are used frequently in cameras and almost every camera phone contains one. [1]
  • An Australian astronomer used the methods from radio astronomy to strengthen signals to increase the communications between computers, which was turned into wifi. [1]
  • Radio technology and communication is pioneered by astronomers and our understanding of how this works comes form our knowledge of the Earth’s atmosphere. [1]
  • GPS satellites require understanding of General Relativity to function, and use images of distant galaxies and quasars to determine their positions.[2]
  • Memory foam was invented by a NASA scientist to make more comfortable seats and provide additional protection in the case of a crash.
  • Technology from the space shuttle has been used to make commercial flights safer and faster. [3]
  • Rumble strips were originally designed to increase the friction of landing strips for shuttles. [3]
CAT Scan of a human brain. Credit: Mikael Häggström, Department of Radiology, Uppsala University Hospital, Wikimedia Commons.

How astronomy has helped medicine

  • Techniques for looking through turbulence in the atmosphere, such as adaptive optics, are also used to look through the liquid in patients’ eyeballs to inspect their retinas. [2]
  • One of the films that is used in medical imaging was developed for taking images of the sun. [2]
  • Tomography was a technique developed by a solar physicist, which has since been adapted fo use in medical imaging, such as CAT scans, MRIs and PET scans.[2]
  • Clean room technology and protocols to keep satellites free of debris and microbes have been adopted by hospitals.[2]
  • Radio astronomy techniques have been adapted to search for breast tumours non-invasively. [2]
  • Thermal sensors for monitoring telescope instruments are also used to monitor the temperature in neonatal wards for premature babies.[2]
  • The x-ray detectors used for dental x-rays were originally developed for astronomy. [1]
  • NASA developed a low-energy, portable x-ray scanner that can be used for outpatient care and in developing countries. [2]

Specialist technology

  • Computing languages that were originally developed for Astronomy – IDL and FORTH – are used to analyse car crash data and tracking packages, respectively.[2]
  • The knowledge of stellar atmospheres can be applied to the Earth’s and used to detect missiles and rockets which are used in early warning systems.[2]
  • Astronomy means we understand the sun’s activity and we can monitor it for any possible occurrences that may affect communication and electronic networks. [1]
  • The materials developed for use in satellites have been adapted to create large area solar panels.[2]
  • Technologies developed for X-ray telescopes is being used to monitor the plasma inside fusion reactors.[2]
  • Airports use a gas chromatograph to look for drugs and explosives that was originally designed for a Mars rover. [2]
  • A gamma-ray spectrometer that was designed to study the surface of the moon is being used to examine the structural integrity of historic buildings. [2]

Other sciences:

  • Sailors used the stars to navigate with the aid of a sextant since the 1700s. [3]
  • Observations of the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus help us to predict the course of climate change on Earth.
  • Finally, Astronomy is not just done by professional scientists. Amateurs have made significant contributions to astronomy too:

References

[1] Andy Fabian, A&G 2010 

[2] IAU, Astronomy in Everyday Life 

[3] Astro4Dev, Astronomy in Everyday Life 

Featured image credit: ESO/S. Brunier

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