Top Ten unexpected benefits of astronomy

9 01 2011

Cosmoboy’s been very busy working on the Long Range Plan for Canadian astronomy over the past few months. It’s been incredibly rewarding to look in detail at the world-leading research that is going on in Canada. The statistics show that when measured relative to the size of our country, Canadian astronomy is the most successful in the G8 – something that all Canadians can be proud of. We aren’t just good at hockey!

Astronomy answers some of the most fundamental questions we can ask about ourselves and our Universe. Where did it come from? How did it evolve? How do the building blocks of life come together? It’s influence on our society is deep and profound in ways we frequently overlook: we call our greatest heros “stars”.

But looking to the future, our society faces many great challenges. Canada, in particular, struggles to maintain an effective level of industrial productivity. In this economic climate our government is looking to fund science that can help address the productivity issue. So one of the challenges in the Long Range Plan has been to determine how much astronomy contributes to technological and industrial growth. The answer: way more than we’d ever imagined!!!

Here’s a list of some of the most unexpected benefits of astronomy. If anyone thinks I’ve missed something obvious please let me know – I have avoided all the NASA Apollo spin offs deliberately. Even so, the list covers a range of applications from civilian to military. And there are many more! This is just the tip of the iceberg!

10. Theme-park ride engineering

Telescope support structures have to acheive unprecdented strength-to-weight ratios and control vibration efficiently. Much of the leading-edge design needed to meet these requirements has been carried over to a new generation of theme park rides. This multi-billion dollar industry is cut-throat, only the latest and greatest rides make the headlines and become popular. So any new technological advantage has the potential to be a real “money spinner”.

9. Fluid dynamic simulations

Astrophysicists understand the workings of stars, galaxies and so on by solving equations. Nowadays, computers help us solve these equations extremely quickly and with a level of accuracy that was beyond our wildest dreams 20 years ago. Many astrophysical systems are fluids and the algorithms used to study them have found applications in the oil and gas industry through to computer games. Cosmoboy has even given a presentation to game developers on the methods!

8. Ultraprecise mirrors for semi-conductor manufacturing

Optics are critically important to microlithography, a class of processes by which integrated circuitry is “printed”. Techniques initially pioneered to make the Hubble Space Telescope mirror the most accurate ever ground have been carried over into this field. The result is better made circuits and ultimately less costly manufacturing.

7. X-ray scanners for luggage analysis at airports

Astronomers are interested in detecting X-ray signals that while containing very high energy photons are still very weak (there are just very few photons, in some cases as few as a ten or so). To do this high sensitivity X-ray detectors, capable of detecting single X-ray photons, were developed a number of years ago. The technology behind these detectors has been adopted in luggage analysis to allow both low doses of X-rays and highly accurate images.

6. Imaging CCD technology development

Charge-coupled devices are the workhorse of astronomical imaging. While their development was recently awarded the Nobel prize (shared by Willard Boyle and George Smith) astronomy has pushed advances in CCD design year after year. Examples include improvements in the quantum efficiency of these devices, improved sensitivity at ultraviolet & X-ray wavelengths, and even new methods of CCD operation.

5. Medical and scientific imaging

Everyone knows astronomy creates lots of gorgeous images, but the raw data from the detector is much less clean than the final product. Over the years numerous algorithms and image analysis techniques, particularly using a process called Fourier analysis, have helped astronomers develop an exceptional toolkit for improving and calibrating images. No surprise then that many of these techniques have been adopted in other areas, particular the medical area, and many astronomy graduates actually wind up working in this field.

4. Advanced RADAR that can detect stealth planes

This advance came out of gravitational wave astronomy. Detecting these weak distortions in space-time is unbelievably hard, and the electromagnetic radiation used in their detection them must be incredibly pure. The same technology has now be licenced to defence industries for detection of stealth planes and could also be applied to help commercial pilots detect turbulence.

3. Distributed “cloud” computing

Many people run the SETI@HOME client on their computer. The idea of farming out pieces of work to a “cloud” of computers wasn’t new when the folks at UC Berkeley started using it, but SETI@HOME really got people believing that this idea could be used effectively and thus pioneered its wider adoption. While SETI@HOME used the computers to look for alien signals in radio telescope data, the idea has been extended to protein folding, molecular docking and climate prediction. Cloud computing is now one the most popular computing models.

2. GPS operation and calibration

Accurate GPS operation relies on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Without taking this into consideration the errors in the GPS positions would accumulate at the rate of 10 kilometers a day! But equally as interesting, how do we know that the GPS reference frame isn’t drifting out of alignment somehow? Perhaps the best way to do this is to compare to a fixed number of objects on the sky – and quasars (among the most distant but bright objects known to us) are a good way to do this. ICRF2 reference frame, derived from 3000 quasars, provides an ultra-precise, celestial reference frame.

1. Wireless networking

The technology that makes reading your email in a coffee shop possible has astronomy to thank. A technique developed in the 1970s for analyzing signals from radio telescopes was applied by the same researcher 20 years later to reduce interference in radio-based computer networks. The algorithms required were then integrated onto chips that run the now ubiquitous 802.11 wireless standard.

So if you’re reading this in a Starbucks – thank astronomy! 🙂