Exploring the Universe

May 22, 2012
By , Holland, MI
Though not currently at the forefront of political debates, the continuation of space exploration is a topic about which there are conflicting views. Those who oppose it regard it as a waste of time and money. I wish to give those who support it the voice they often have trouble finding, so they can express what they want and why. There is a lack of information as well as many misconceptions about space exploration. Many people think it only means sending people and probes into the universe at citizens’ expense, for no reason besides scientists’ interests. In reality, space exploration can be regarded as the study of space itself. It encompasses observations made from Earth’s surface as well as some ventures into outer space. Whether or not it has worth depends on how much one values knowledge, health, life, technology, and renewable resources.

I believe space exploration has proven itself deserving of time and resources in the past and still does today, generating discoveries and advancements in technology and medicine. In ancient times, the stars were used for navigation and to tell the time and date. Now, Earth’s rotation and revolution, and the Moon’s orbit still dictate the calendar. The technological advancements made due to the study of space include satellites, which provide cell phone reception, weather information, internet, and images of Earth. Those who are against space exploration should consider whether they would be willing to mail their letters of opposition, instead of making phone calls or emailing. Scientists can also identify health concerns by using satellites to map holes in Earth’s ozone layer, where the most solar ultraviolet radiation can penetrate the atmosphere. These areas can then be studied to determine how damaging the rays are and where people are at the highest risk for skin cancer.

Additionally, many useful products have been invented by NASA that, originally intended for use in space, have integrated into the households of average American citizens. Examples are memory foam, certain types of polymers, and the insulating space blanket. NASA has also created much of the technology and weapons for the National Defense, and invented solar paneling. If the space program is allowed to continue, there are sure to be more inventions that will further improve people’s lives.

Furthermore, space exploration is necessary to save lives. Fortunately, astronomers have identified many dangers, and with proper support, will continue to protect people. For instance, some objects in space pose a threat to the safety of everyone on the planet. By studying geologic history, scientists know that the risk of asteroid or comet impacts increases every twenty–six thousand years, when the solar system passes through the galactic plane – the area where stars are most densely gathered in our galaxy. When this happens, other stars’ gravity disturbs the Oort Cloud – the spherical cloud of comets encircling the solar system – sending comets rocketing toward the inner solar system. Additionally, Jupiter’s gravity can fling objects inward towards Earth. Luckily, NASA has divisions that monitor asteroids and comets and discover new planetary bodies daily. They can predict the site of impact of incoming objects with extreme accuracy, so the area can be evacuated before the body hits Earth. Thus, space exploration is an important factor of public safety.

Further investigation could reveal more ways to protect people or ensure survival. Astronomers could create methods to make more precise predictions, destroy comets or asteroids before they hit, or alter space objects’ course. Some people may argue that research is useless, as these disastrous events are unlikely. They are partially correct, as major impacts are relatively rare. However, many have occurred in the past, a famous one being sixty – five million years ago, which was a probable cause for the extinction of the dinosaurs. It only takes one impact to kill. If a large impact caused a mass extinction, another could be deadly for humankind. The space program must continue, as only those with sufficient training are able to protect us from such dangers.

The Sun also influences everyone. Heliologists – those who study the Sun - can warn people when a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection is likely to occur. These gigantic explosions on the Sun can send immense amounts of electrically charged matter into space. This can destroy major, expensive appliances such as orbiting satellites –which could create global communication issues. Thus, the study of space is necessary to both launch and protect the satellites that are essential to our lives. In addition, the explosions can make geomagnetic storms that can interrupt devices such as compasses and other tools for navigation, and may create electrical currents, which harm electronics. Only with the help of heliologists can these explosions be tracked and sufficient warning given to protect appliances and minimize the destruction.

Conjointly, scientists can determine which stars are likely to supernova – explode – soon by examining the galaxy. If a star in relatively close proximity to Earth were to supernova, most of our planet’s atmosphere would be blown away by the bombardment of radiation. This would strip away our protection from ultraviolet radiation and eliminate the greenhouse effect, which keeps Earth at a temperature able to support life. Knowing when and where a supernova will occur millions of years in advance can give humankind time to find solutions. Also, as the Sun evolves and ages, our planet will be enveloped within its radius. Even worse, our entire galaxy is on a collision course with the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy. As they coalesce, the Earth may be ejected from the galaxy or placed in an inhabitable zone. Without continuing research, there won’t be any innovative ways to escape these hazards, and the human race will face extinction.

Additionally, climate change has now been noted on Earth, and very dramatic changes could be ahead. Scientists have realized that different factors may cause these changes. Firstly, the Earth’s axis will eventually point in the opposite direction, possibly causing climate change. The eleven–year sunspot cycle – sunspots being cooler areas on the surface of the sun - affects weather and climate too, higher sunspot numbers creating warmer temperatures. It is a mystery as to what causes the sunspot cycle. By continuing solar studies, the cause of this process could be determined and used to understand the effects on Earth’s environment. Moreover, by examining other planets, scientists can gather information about what the Earth may be like in the future and how people can adapt to be successful during the changes. Those who are worried about the climate and weather should take action and support space exploration to generate answers to the oncoming problems.

Furthermore, astronomers can provide clean sources of energy to power the world, reduce pollution, and replace the waning resource of fossil fuels. NASA has already created items that use unlimited resources, including solar panels. If we enable more development, there could be even more options, such as space–based solar power. This concept is to launch solar paneling into space, where it would always be exposed to the Sun’s rays without interference from Earth’s atmosphere. The energy could be wirelessly transmitted back to Earth. If sufficient funding is granted, NASA could even meet its goal to mine helium 3 - an isotope that is extremely rare on Earth, but abundant in lunar rocks and soil – from the Moon. Helium 3 can be used as fuel for nuclear fusion, without producing radioactive byproducts. This would give humankind access to a nearly unlimited source of efficient, clean, electricity production. Some believe that the process of extracting helium 3 would be too expensive, but at a selling price of forty thousand dollars an ounce, mining helium 3 could generate a profitable industry. Contrary to popular belief, space exploration can meet society’s energy requirements as well as our monetary needs.

People wonder how all of this research affects them. Though I mentioned ways that much of it already does, not all of these studies involve events that will occur or technologies that will develop within the current generation. However, by gaining knowledge and making plans now, lives can be saved in the future.

Finally, there is one last reason to continue space exploration: people’s dreams. How can one who has observed the beauty and intricacy of the universe not be awestruck and intrigued? Humankind has always had a desire to explore its surroundings. For some, there is an inborn passion to embark on a quest of knowledge. With all of the discoveries that have been made about Earth, space is the final frontier. I believe people who work in space exploration programs are enthusiastic because they crave to constantly learn and be amazed. By prohibiting these workers to use their talent, one would not only make many scientists lose their jobs, he or she would halt the progress of humankind and deny people happiness. Not many know that our galaxy is the optimal type, our solar system in a prime location, and Earth in a great position for viewing the universe. Due to the size of the Moon and our planet’s distance from the Sun, Earth is the only planet on which one can view a total solar eclipse. Our advantages may indicate that part of our integral purpose is to discover, and the fulfillment of people’s aspirations to do so shouldn’t be hindered.

Space exploration should be continued for a variety of practical reasons. It can help people prepare for and prevent disasters, avoid health problems, find solutions to issues in the present and future, elaborate on previously made discoveries, discover clean energy resources, and can aid in easing our lives. Yet, for many, it simply involves a love of space.

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