Why spend so much money exploring the Universe when we could solve a lot of problems on Earth with all those investments? What are the benefits of research in space exploration and astronomy? Olivier Hernandez, director of the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan, invites us to explore those basic questions with him.
Saving the earth: a priority
It’s important, obviously, to take all the measures needed to fight the climate change that is placing the human species in jeopardy. Because it’s human beings and animal biodiversity that are threatened with extinction. Our planet will continue to exist without us.
The IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) informs us that we’re approaching (too) warm tomorrows with disastrous consequences for our species.
According to Hubert Reeves, the renowned Canadian astrophysicist and science popularizer, “nature is infinitely more intelligent than our species” and will always be capable of adapting. The real question is this: will the human species also be able to adapt to climate change?
In that context, it would appear necessary to maximize financial and human resources with a view to protecting the Earth. However, must we “neglect” sciences like astronomy or space exploration that can contribute to the development of highly useful technologies?
Research in space exploration: benefits for all!!
Scientific research is a rather slow process. Science needs to observe, make assumptions, and test them. The trial-and-error method moreover still performs very well. On that basis, scientists can draw conclusions or develop solutions.
Often, if a discovery is to be achieved, tools and new technologies have to take form. For example, Velcro and diapers needed to be invented before humans could be transported to the Moon. Practical and material benefits from theoretical problems!
The great strength of science is its ability to collaborate. Data are becoming freer and freer. The Webb telescope will be making its data freely available upon acquisition.
Basic research applied to smartphones
The CCD detector, an acronym for charge-coupled device, converts photons (particles of light) into electrons. This is an interesting example of a discovery in astronomy that today is applied in a number of products marketed to the general public.
This photographic sensor makes it possible to produce a digital image, a bit like how our cellphones do, to map the Earth seen from space. With these pictures taken by satellites, scientists can measure the impacts of climate change, do forecasting modeling and that way find adaptation solutions.
The Canadian Willard Boyle and the American George Smith incidentally received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for that invention, based partly on the work of Albert Einstein. Einstein’s work – including the theory of relativity, which is over 100 years old now – is still the basis for numerous discoveries. The GPS, for geolocation systems, depends on that theory.
Why invest so much in space exploration or astronomy?
The level of investment in astronomy and in space exploration is not negligible. For instance, the rover Perseverance, which recently touched down on Mars, is a project with a total value of 2.7 billion dollars. That amount includes the material, the human resources (350 people, over more than 11 years), the launch and the operating costs over two full years.
That may seem like an enormous amount, but it has to be seen in perspective. Because 2.7 billion dollars also represents:
- 33 hours in the operating budget of the American Defense Department
- 1 day’s spending on social security in the United States
- 6 days’ worth of profits for Google
- The money spent in one year by our American neighbors on dogs
- Disney’s box office receipts for the film Endgame
This text is adapted from a segment broadcast on the program Moteur de recherche, on ICI Radio-Canada Première.