How Astronomy Benefits Society and Humankind

With an annual cost of $30.8 million, the Keck Observatory costs $53.7 thousand for a single night’s worth of operation. It will cost the James Webb Space Telescope approximately $8.8 billion to reach orbit. And the Space Launch System that will carry the Orion capsule is expected to cost $38 billion.

Why should we be spending such a vast amount of money on astronomy? How is it useful and beneficial to society?

Astronomers face this question on a daily basis. Recently a ream of European astronomers have provided tangible answers relating advancements in astronomy to advancements in industry, aerospace, energy, medicine, international collaboration, everyday life and humankind.

“I get this question quite often,” Dr. Marissa Rosenberg, lead author on the paper, told Universe Today. “One very personal reason for writing this article is that I wanted to share with my parents (both business people) why what I am doing is important and a necessary facet of society.”

Today, millions of people across the world are affected by advances in astronomy.


— Your iPhone’s camera is a charge-coupled device (CCD) — an instrument, which converts the movement of electrical charge into a digital value. Originally developed for astronomy, CCD’s are now used in most cameras, webcams and cell phones.

IPhone with a CCD
Every iPhone with has a built-in CCD

— The computer language Forth, originally developed for the 36-foot telescope on Kitt Peak is now used by FedEx to track packages.

— AT&T uses IRAF —  software written by the National Optical Astronomy   Observatory — to analyze computer systems.

— Kodak film, originally created by astronomers studying the sun, is used extensively by the medical and industrial industries, photographers and artists.


— Space-based telescopes have advanced defense satellites, which require identical technology and hardware.

— Global Positioning System satellites rely on astronomical objects — quasars and distant galaxies — to determine accurate positions.


— Technology gained from imaging X-rays is now used to monitor fusion — where two atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus — that may prove to be our answer for clean energy.


Magnetic resonance imaging utilizes
Magnetic resonance imaging utilizes aperture synthesis – first an astronomical technique and now a medical technique.

Astronomy struggles to see increasingly faint objects;  Medicine struggles to see things obscured within the human body.

— Aperture synthesis — the process of combining data from multiple telescopes to produce a single image seemingly created from a telescope the size of the entire collection — first developed by a radio astronomer has been used for multiple medical imaging tools, including CAT scanners and MRIs.

— Building space-based telescopes requires an extremely clean environment in order to avoid dust particles from obscuring the mirrors or instruments. Similar methods and instruments are now used in hospitals and pharmaceutical labs.

International Collaboration

— Collaboration also inspires competition. The Space Race — a competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for supremacy in space exploration — landed Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

— Astronomy is a collaborative effort. In 1887 astronomers from around the world pooled their telescope images in order to create the first map of the entire sky. Today, astronomers travel around the globe to attend conferences, learn from one another, and utilize telescopes elsewhere.

Everyday Life

— Airports utilize advances in technology designed for astronomy. X-ray observatory technology is used in X-ray luggage belts. A gas chromatograph — an instrument designed for a Mars mission — is used to analyze luggage for explosives.

— Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” has sold over 10 million copies. Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” has been watched in over 60 countries.


“Perhaps the most important reason to study astronomy is that astronomy seeks to satisfy our fundamental curiosity about the world we live in, and answer the ‘big’ questions,” Dr. Rosenberg told Universe Today. “How was the universe created? Where did we come from? Are there other intelligent life forms?”

Every advance in astronomy moves society closer to being able to answer these questions. With advanced technology — increasingly complex CCDs and larger ground- and space-based telescopes — we have peered into the distant, early universe, we have searched for habitable worlds, and we have come to the conclusion that we, ourselves, are stardust.

“Astronomy constantly reminds people of two seemingly contradictory things. First that the universe is infinite and we are of but the tiniest fraction of importance. And Second that life is rare and precious. A home as beautiful and unique as earth does not come often. We must protect it.”

An upcoming version of this paper will not only cover the tangible aspects of astronomy discussed here, but also the intangible aspects of astronomy.

The paper has been accepted has been published on the International Astronomical Union website and is available for download here.

25 Replies to “How Astronomy Benefits Society and Humankind”

  1. Spinoff goes both ways. The economy is a djungle of unforseeable interdependencies. Investments in consumer goods have been necessary to make any space travel and any astronomy science instrument possible (the telescope was developed for naval travel, the rocket for artillery and so on). The horrible spinoff argument logically says that all targeted space science project should be abolished, hoping that random investments in everything else that that, magically gives space science results “as a spinoff”.

    Please stop arguing for astronomy by arguing for how it makes frying pans better! Please start arguing for why astronomy has a value in itself. Frying pan manufacturers who invented teflon didn’t motivate their invention with “It could give better space science”. It is rethorically very destructive to ignore the value of space itself, to instead argue for spinoffs, which goes at least as much the other way too.

    The Apollo program wasn’t motivated by “spinoffs”. Please stop this self-destruction and public devaluation of astronomy! We need astronomy because astronomy is important in itself.

    1. Nice sentiment, but unrealistic. You’re talking about the people who see glaciers receding, watch storms like Sandy and Haiyan and then deny global warming is happening. People who believe the earth is 6000 years old and that caring for the environment is pointless because the end times are near.

      Face it, people are stupid and a better frying pan will make more of an impression than a logical argument.

      1. If people are stupid, none of them should be allowed to decide anything over anyone else of them! If people are stupid, there is no possible argument for having any government at all. (Or did you “believe” that government was an unhuman superhuman GOD???)

      2. I’m bringing things like global warming up because it’s all connected. People don’t realize that it’s in the human race’s best interest to eventually get all the eggs out of one basket. Astronomy and a great space program are needed for that. One good smack by an asteroid, climate change gone out of control, a new pathogen or some other unforeseen event could decimate or even wipe out the human race. If some of us go elsewhere we increase our chances of survival.

        I don’t disagree that it would be great to fund science because it’s the right thing to do, but someone voted for the boneheads that are cutting the funding for scientific research.

      3. Government is the definition of putting all eggs in one basket! We could start with stop doing that. How EVERYONE votes is a “basket” case because EVERYONE knows nothing what they are voting about. They are voting about thousands of different things at once every few years. No one can know anything about all that. No single plant in the djungle knows about the entire djungle. Instead of pretending that every single plant knows about how the entire djungle should be ruled, each plant should be allowed to keep on evolving on its own, without democracy or other forms of collectivism.

        If government let us alone, who want to spend more than 0.5% on space exploration and astronomy, many times more than 0.5% would be spent on it. Even if the majority keeps ignoring the concept, it wouldn’t be our problem anymore if we simply had no government to hold as back to their low standards.

      4. I agree with your sentiment entirely. We really need to take a good long look at where gov’t is “doing” things. Everywhere that is possible for the gov’t get out of trying to “do” things it should.

        The only things a government is equipped to do without spending 5x the money, taking 3x too long, and getting 1/4 the results in the best case are:

        Setting and enforcing standards to ensure a level playing field.

        Undertaking big expensive scientific projects where there is no obvious monetary incentive to do so.

        I’m a card carrying Libertarian but I’m not naive enough to think these big scientific projects would ever come to pass without gov’t funding. If we could come to our senses and get Uncle Sam out of education, healthcare, farming, insurance, transportation, LEO space, telecommunications, and anything having remotely to do with marriages to start with.

        We could spend 5 or 10x more on space and the sciences while cutting taxes to boot.

      5. No gov in farming = major boom/bust cycles and either complete monopoly of our food production or everyone having subsistence gardens.

        No gov in education = only the rich get educated

        No gov in transportation = no public mass transit

        No gov in telecom = coverage only in densely populated regions or where folks are willing to pay for towers

        No gov in marriage is the same as saying no gov overseeing contract law.

        Government is only wasteful with money when it interacts with large corporations demanding government give them “cost plus”.

      6. Uhh, wow where to start?

        No gov in Education = Better education for all, (Teachers that are held accountable when the students fail standardized tests)

        No gov in Trans = No more throwing money down the Amtrak toilet, no more bridges to nowhere, no more car makers forced to turn out models that no one buys. (I’m referring to federal gov so municipalities mass trans would be unaffected)

        No gov in Telecom = Much more spectrum for actual use (there may be higher costs if different states dole out spectrum in drastically different frequencies but I doubt it would be much worse than the GSM/CDMA we currently have.)

        No gov in marriage = Civil unions for everyone! (If you wanna be “married” go to a church that is not uncle Sam’s domain.) *Where did you get no more gov overseeing contract law from that? To be technical the gov doesn’t “oversee” contract law unless they are a party to the contract or if you really stretch the definition and consider a contract being deemed unenforceable because either a provision or the subject matter is contrary to the law to be over site? (It’s not)

        Gov is ALWAYS wasteful because there is 0 incentive for any gov employee to do anything above the bare minimum required. There are no raises, bonuses, rewards for doing a good job. Just the same cost of living wage increase and the knowledge that once you have your job it will take almost an act of congress to remove you no matter how bad or incompetent you may be.

      7. Private/charter schools do no better, if not worse, than public schools when normalized for economic factors. Meaning: only if you’re rich enough to get it, private education works.

        Amtrak would work if we accepted it as a public good and not as a pseduo-private entity that has to turn a profit. And that interstate highway system had a 35% rate of return in the 50’s and 60’s and sits at about a 10% today—better than many private investments. And no private corporation would have done it—unless as purely toll roads. Car makers should NOT be allowed to make whatever any person wants. You may want to be able to go 0–60 in 1.5 seconds and top out at 250 mph, but as such, you’re a hazard to the rest of us. NO.

        Spectrum clashes would be a SO much fun…

        Marriage *is* the civil union contract; government adjudicates all contracts at some level. (You go to your clergy for a Religious Union; we need to simply stop allowing clergy to officiate marriages.)

        Private sector is FAR more wasteful what with its multimillions to CEOs who, once they have their job, it takes years and 10s of millions more to get rid of them no matter how bad or incompetent they are. Getting rid of incompetent regular gov workers is just as easy as managers actually proving they are incompetent.

      8. Wasn’t it Copernicus that warned of “geocentric” research and that it could lead to untrue findings? In this case, “policentric” should be considered as well.

      9. Why is stuff like this allowed on the forums? Personal opinions aside, the mixing of politics and science is a VERY bad thing.
        UT would do well to better moderate these forums in order to make sure that politically motivated posts don’t occur.
        Keepin’ it real, as it were…

    2. I realize that the blogger here tries well and hard with all good intentions. But the same spinoff-argument has been advocated for several decades of decreasing investments in space explorations now. It fails. I just want to point out why it fails, because of its failed economic logic and because of its poor rhetorics.

      All of us who want more investments in astronomy and space exploration, we all need to argue openly for the true goals which motivate us, instead of hiding from them and instead try to search for “spinoffs”. We all need to tell the world that astronomy in itself is good and worth its price! Astronomy was the starting point of physics. Astronomy is the science of everything. We don’t need to hide behind excuses. We need to display our infinite ambitions.

      1. It’s sad, but over the years I’ve seen people do stupid things for stupid reasons. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I believe that people would be more likely to allow part of their income go to scientific research if they stood to reap immediate results rather than some nebulous future benefit.

        I believe we need to pump as much money as we can into scientific research for the sake of the future of the human race, but ignorance, politics and general shortsightedness has, and will continue to thwart any efforts to that end. Ask yourself why the LHC was built in Europe and the SSC was cancelled in the US. Why we’re relying on the Russians to get back and forth from the ISS. We used to be a scientific and technological superpower, but that was then.

      2. I’ve seen people do more stupid things with other peoples money as bureaucrats, than the same individuals have done in other roles.
        However, that doesn’t matter here. We should be brave enough to argue for astronomy spendings for the sake of astronomy in itself. Not for “spinoffs”. Astronomy is worth is. We need to say that it is.

  2. Some perspective

    NASA’s annual budget is:

    10 days of the Defense Budget.

    11 days of the Medicare Budget.

    The same as Americans spend yearly on pet food.

    Equal to what the military spent to air condition tents in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2011.

    NASA provides extensive classroom materials free of charge.

    NASA provides more than 200 grants for scientific research yearly.

  3. Humans aren’t particularly good at anything with the exception of thinking. Joke all you want about the collective stupidity of humanity but this is the card we’ve been dealt. We need mental activities such as astronomy like a cheetah needs to run or a fish needs to swim. What good are we if we fail to use our greatest endowment to the peak of its potential?

    1. I admire and envy your idealism. Given human nature though, I think most people, not all but most, are content to exercise their minds by watching sitcoms, crime dramas or sports from the comfort of their couch while sucking down a beer.

      I think it’s going to take something like a near miss by a comet or asteroid or some natural disaster to knock people out of their current complacency and get them thinking about our collective future.

    2. It’s not true that brainpower is our only strength. Humans are also exceptional endurance runners.

      1. Fair enough. With considerable effort, humans can build the endurance required to outrun other mammals largely with thanks to our remarkable endocrine system. However, it’s worth noting that nearly any human, even a young, inexperienced one, may outperform the next smartest animal in various mental tasks without a comparable effort.

  4. We need to study the cosmos, because sooner or later we will make first contact. When we do, we better hope they are benevolent, or we will need to be very prepared. Humans are just part of the animal kingdom, we just happen to be top of the food chain, are smarter and have setup elaborate rules of engagement.

  5. Why on Earth do ” journalists” like Shannon Hall have to push their personal love for certain (unrelated) products in their articles? CCD’s are, and have been for decades, found in all sorts of cameras and phones, not just one product (which I should add, did not even remotely invent the first phone to have a camera in it, which strangely enough was the J-Phone!). “Product placement” advertising has no place in journalistic writing. Stop pushing your personal preference agendas, it invalidates anything you have to say!!!

    1. Not a denier, one who believes that the science isn’t anywhere near settled enough to justify the economic impact of acting on it.

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