We humans are naturally curious.
Curiosity makes us look at what surrounds us, look for a meaning and answers to the unknown, explore beyond, know what was before and what is after. What is behind that mountain? What happens if I touch this button? We long to know those answers, all this goes in our genes and it is what, from the moment we are born, helps us to develop our capacities, what makes us move forward.
So, do we seek only to satisfy our need?
I’d say it’s really about the survival of the species. For example, in 1859 a solar storm of immense magnitude reached the Earth producing auroras that were seen from latitudes where this phenomenon is not usual, such as Madrid or Hawaii. The few electrical appliances that existed at the time stopped working, many burned like telegraphs, and some operators were injured. This event was called the Carrington Event, as it was Richard Carrington who, a few hours earlier, making his observations of the Sun, had detected a burst of light that seemed to come from a group of sunspots.
It is difficult to calculate the consequences that an event like that would have today taking into account our current dependence on electricity and technology. However, the study of the Sun and the elaboration of predictions about the Space Weather help us to design protection protocols for our satellites, airplanes, computers and in general any electrical device that could be affected.
Mars had an atmosphere, but it almost disappeared because of the weakening of its magnetic field.
Now let’s jump to another planet in our Solar System, Mars. The data we currently have indicates that Mars had an atmosphere but it almost disappeared as a result of the weakening of its magnetic field that is now unable to protect it from the solar wind. No one can assure that the Earth’s atmosphere awaits the same fate or that it is human interaction that affects it before, what we do know is that in approximately 5,000 million years we will have to have emigrated since our Sun will have engulfed us in its process of evolution. So we are at the beginning of our future. If we want to survive as a species we will have to colonize other planets and that is where astronomy is at this time, looking for and studying planets that can host life as we know it.
Atlantis space shuttle over the island of Tenerife, captured from the ISS (International Space Station)
Entering material issues derived from these and other investigations we find countless inventions that today we owe to astronomy and space exploration.
For example, the viscoelastic material that we enjoy today in our beds and pillows was made by NASA to relieve the pressure that astronauts suffered during takeoff, the technology of vacuum cleaners or cordless tools was developed for the drills that were used to take samples of the Moon, infrared thermometers for the ears are based on the techniques used to measure the temperature of distant stars and planets, water purification and air filtration systems, translucent anti-scratch materials, osteoporosis treatments, cameras CCD (Charge Coupled Device) or CMOS image sensors (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) used in the cameras of our mobiles, the high-temperature metal ceramic material used in hair dryers and straighteners, the filters that block blue light from the Ski goggles, shock-absorbing shoes, radiation barriers used to insulate buildings, in emergency blankets or to keep drinks cold, or silicon cells for solar panels are some of these inventions within a very long list.
Let us also not forget one of the most interesting aspects in my opinion, and that is that astronomy has become one of the most important means of introducing children and young people to a great variety of branches of science, not only in physics or mathematics but in many other related disciplines such as chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, medicine, etc.
Finally, and with regard to the territory of the Canary Islands, I must refer to the study on:
The Economic and Social Impact of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands
prepared by a team from the University of La Laguna and in which the IAC (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias) has collaborated, presented in 2018. In this study and after analyzing the activity that this sector produced in the Islands in 2016, it was estimated that for each euro invested, € 3.56 was generated in the GDP of the Canary Islands. In addition, through taxes and social contributions for each euro received from the Spanish public administrations that finance the IAC there was a return on investment of €1.41. Additionally, 1,554 full-time annual jobs were created between direct and indirect contracts. Other aspects are difficult to quantify, such as the important contribution that the IAC makes to the training of new professionals, as well as to the dissemination of science and the Islands both locally and internationally.
This diagram shows current and future missions studying the Sun. Some orbit the Earth, Parker SolarProbe will be the closest spacecraft to the Sun! Credit: NASA Heliphysics Division (HPD) Mission Fleet Chart, as of September 2018.