Bilinovich: Why space matters to us

Beau Bilinovich, Staff Columnist

Oct. 4, 1957 marks the date when humanity first reached for the stars: Sputnik I, a Soviet artificial satellite, was launched. Similar in size to a beach ball, this achievement was the first of many great leaps in space exploration.

About a year later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was founded under President Eisenhower. In the years that followed, this agency would compete with the Soviet Union in what we now know as the Space Race—a competition of one-upmanship with the ultimate goal of taking humanity to the stars. The moon landing, at the time, represented the best in human potential, and one of humanity’s great leaps.

There have been numerous advancements made since Sputnik I first entered orbit: Voyager 1, the most distant artificial satellite ever launched, is now approximately 14.1 billion miles from Earth; the James Webb Space Telescope, which overtook Hubble as the most powerful telescope built for space; the Mars rover missions; and many others.

But why is space exploration so important to us? How can we possibly benefit from this?

Practically speaking, exploring space is a rewarding endeavor. Satellite technology is one of the most directly beneficial technological advancements to come from space, allowing us to utilize such devices as Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Moreover, monitoring the Earth’s weather and climate is even easier with satellites that can take images of the Earth with relative ease. This also has applications for understanding human’s impacts on the environment and our role in global climate change. Communications technologies have also benefited from satellites, with uses in television and the internet.

Space exploration also has positive impacts on the economy. A report from NASA found that the agency generated $64.3 billion in economic output in 2019, along with $7 billion in federal, state and local taxes. The space agency also supported, both directly and indirectly, 312,000 jobs nationwide, spanning from NASA’s own employees to the private contractors with whom the agency works.

In the world of science, the knowledge gained from space exploration and research is extensive. We now have a much greater understanding of how the universe works, how galaxies are formed, how stars and planets interact with each other and how everything in our universe came to be. We’ve captured the first image of a black hole and detected gravitational waves (disturbances in space-time caused by particularly violent cosmic events, such as the collision of two black holes or the explosions of massive stars in a phenomenon known as a supernova).

We are even able to look beyond the Milky Way and meet our galactic neighbors—the galaxies and star systems which surround us. We have predicted that one such neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, situated 2.5 million light-years away, will collide with the Milky Way Galaxy in approximately 4.5 billion years. Our magnificent ability to see what was once unimaginable in years past is thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has featured in more than 17,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications in its three decade-long operational period. The ability to churn out so much research has made it one of the most efficient scientific instruments ever built.

The future of space exploration is even more promising.

Within the current century, there is the possibility that we might see the first image of an exoplanet. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is an ongoing scientific project aimed at developing tiny light-powered space probes in order to reach the Alpha Centauri star system 4.37 light-years away. Using powerful lasers, 1000 of these probes would be launched toward Proxima Centauri b, one of the star system’s planets. The probes would be able to travel at 20% of the speed of light, completing their journey in around 20 years. Any data captured would take about 4 years to reach Earth, giving us the first images in 24 years. In comparison, if Voyager 1 were to be launched toward Proxima Centauri b, the journey would take 70,000 years—and that’s at a speed of 38,000 miles per hour. For the impatient among us, the Starshot mission is intensely exciting.

Another possible future technology is a cosmic telescope, which would use gravitational lensing to magnify distant objects. Essentially, stellar objects such as the sun can bend light as a result of their gravity, creating a lensing or magnifying effect. If such a telescope were pointed towards the sun we would be able to see clear pictures of other planets or stars, even those trillions of miles away.

Space exploration can also be a humbling experience, one that can bring unity even when the current situation might seem bleak.

The allegiances you have on Earth, the grudges you hold against others, the everyday events which weigh you down—none of that matters in space. All that matters is the mission ahead, the places which lie beyond our home planet, the seemingly endless worlds to witness.

American astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan had much to say about the freedom from terrestrial bonds. Upon seeing an image of Earth taken from the Voyager 1 satellite while it was 4 billion miles away—the Earth, at that distance, is just a pale blue dot—he said, “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

Indeed, the Earth is just one small speck of dust amidst many others. The universe is vast, billions of light-years long. There are millions of other stars and planets in many near and distant galaxies, and we only make up a tiny fraction of everything that exists. Yet, we continue to think as though we are all that matters. “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light,” as Sagan so eloquently stated.

As we work through numerous global issues and struggle to survive during a worldwide pandemic, we must remember those words. We must also remember that, while Earth is just one small portion of the entire universe, it is also the only home we have, so we should cherish it, along with our neighbors.

Our future could be very promising and bring about many new advancements that add to our accumulation of knowledge. We could visit distant planets and even find other places to call home. But in order to do that, we must look up and move forward with a sense of discovery, and also never forget that we all come from that same pale blue dot.