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Astronomy in our daily lives

The science of astronomy can definitely feel "out of this world," but it has also led to many great inventions used in our daily lives. Here are just a few areas where the study of celestial bodies benefits life on Earth.

Communications

Five radio antennas of the Australia Telescope Compact Array in New South Wales, Australia. Astronomers working on radio astronomy in Australia are credited with inventing Wi-Fi. (Credit: CSIRO)

In the s, astronomers in Australia studying black holes using radio waves contributed to the invention of Wi-Fi by developing a microchip that improved the wireless transfer of radio waves.

Their initial goal was to detect tiny exploding black holes which required the use of mathematical equations to cut through noise and produce sharp images. While the astronomers did not end up detecting these black holes, this technique was refined and put to use to allow portable devices to connect to wireless networks.

Computing

Astronomers collect an impressive amount of data to study the universe. One of the most efficient methods of processing information is grid computing. Here, computers distributed across large distances yet connected through a network work together to treat data as efficiently as possible. Astronomers, including those working at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute on the SETI@home project, have been crucial in refining and popularizing grid computing.

Advanced computing methods will be essential to handle the extreme volumes of data that will be collected by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile. Once its operations begin in , the telescope will observe the entire southern hemisphere's sky about twice a week, collecting approximately 20 terabytes of data each night – the same amount of information that fits on 60,000 CDs!

Environmental science

Studying other planets in our solar system can teach us about Earth's changing climate. Famous climate scientists such as Dr. James Hansen (Columbia University) have developed theories and models for global warming by first studying the climate of Venus. It is thought that Venus's atmosphere used to look more like Earth's current atmosphere. By studying how radiation is transported through Venus's outer gaseous layers, scientists have been able to better model the effects of gases and aerosols on our planet's climate.

The planet Venus is similar in size and composition to Earth, but has an atmosphere 90 times thicker. This thick atmosphere causes a runaway greenhouse effect and hot temperatures on Venus.

Imaging

Most mobile phones now have an integrated high-resolution camera. The small sensors in these phones known as charge-coupled devices (CCDs) were first used in astronomy in .

Supersensitive CCDs were developed for the Hubble Space Telescope and many other telescopes in space and on the ground. These CCDs have been miniaturized over the years for astronomical instrumentation, making them ideal for use in personal cameras, laptops, and mobile phones.

Medicine

Medical spinoffs of astronomical technologies may be some of the most useful. A technique called interferometry used in astronomy to study radio waves is applied to medical imaging techniques used to take scans of a human's internal organs and other soft tissue. Examples include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, computerized tomography (CAT) scans, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Astronomers have contributed to medical technologies such as MRI scanners over the decades.

Because space telescopes' sensitive instruments must be kept absolutely clean – totally free of dust and particles – new non-contamination techniques and devices, like air filters and cleanroom suits, have been perfected. These same technologies and protocols have also been applied to hospitals and pharmaceutical labs.

Interferometry is the technique used when scientists combine signals from multiple telescopes distributed over a large area to simulate the effect of a single very large telescope. The act of combining the data, known as aperture synthesis, was developed by Martin Ryle, a radio astronomer. He won the Nobel Prize in for that innovation.

Timekeeping

Humans have used stars for timekeeping for thousands of years, but the methods used to do so have greatly improved with the advent of modern astronomy. In the 21st century, accurate timekeeping is done using hundreds of high-precision atomic clocks scattered across the globe. Global positioning system (GPS) satellites include their own atomic clocks, and all of these measurements must be synchronized to the orbit of Earth around the Sun, and Earth's own rotation on its axis. These celestial motions are measured very precisely in reference to distant, immobile astronomical objects that emit radio waves, like galaxies.

Atomic clocks use the frequency of atomic transitions to count time. These atomic transitions happen when electrons are given energy and jump from one energy level to another inside an atom. Atomic clocks are the most accurate way to keep time.

Inspiring the next generation of scientists

Human curiosity drives us to ask questions about the universe and our place within it. Astronomy is a formal, scientific way to search for the answers to basic questions, such as:

Many children first connect with science by asking these questions that astronomers have asked for centuries. While important discoveries have greatly expanded our knowledge, more questions remain. Space exploration and the study of the stars have a unique way of inspiring the next generation of astronomers, engineers, scientists and leaders.

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