Astronomy is all around us. Not just in the sky but even is your pocket. Yes, your pocket. Your cell phone in your pocket has a camera which uses technology based on charge-coupled device or CCD, for short (Rosenburg and Russo). CCD’s are imaging sensors used in most astronomical instruments, used in the infamous Hubble Space Telescope, which is responsible for countless scientific discoveries (Lesser). The x-ray scanners at airport’s use gas chromatograph, which was made for a mission to Mars. Even the packages we order online are tracked using a computer language known as Forth but was initially used for a telescope (Rosenburg and Russo). Basically, if it weren’t for astronomy, we wouldn’t have camera phones or know as much as we do about the universe thanks to telescopes. We are getting closer and closer to possible explanations for existential questions such as, “Why are we here?” or “Where did we come from?”. This paper will analyze what, how and why technology originating in astronomy have influenced aspects of our 21st century culture.
It’s hard to imagine a life without pictures or videos. You can go almost anywhere nowadays and find yourself or others taking pictures or videos. Concerts, beaches, amusement parks, school, work, even mirrors are seeing their fair share of cameras. Everywhere you look someone’s taking a selfie for Snapchat or posting a video on Instagram. Using a camera to capture life’s moments has become a staple in today’s society. But how did society get here? How did the digital camera come to be? In an acronym: NASA. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration created digital imaging as we know it (NASA Technology Transfer Program). It first began with the invention of a charge-coupled device (CCD). When CCD imaging was discovered in 1969, it didn’t take long before the scientific community began experimenting and refining the sensors (Lesser). With this new discovery, film was no longer needed. CCD technology is used in most telescopes, along with arguably the most well-known telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope. Without the Hubble Telescope discovering all that it has and continues to discover, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about the universe. We wouldn’t know that the Earth is about 14 billion years old or how fast it’s expanding (Wiseman). We wouldn’t know about star formation or atmospheres of exoplanets (Wiseman). We wouldn’t know about the existence of black holes (Wiseman). We wouldn’t know about dark matter (Wiseman). According to Michael Lesser of The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, ‘Further developments of the CCD would lead to increased quantum efficiency and image format (size and pixel count), reduced noise, and improved cosmetics. By the 1980s, it was clear that CCDs would be the sensor of choice for future astronomical imaging.’
However, its development reached far beyond just astronomical imaging. In 1975, the first Kodak digital camera was made using CCD technology (Fossum). In the 1990’s, the Sony Camcorder utilized CCD technology. In 2009, the inventors of CCD technology won a Nobel prize (Fossum). Using a technique from CCD technology, a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) by the name of Eric Fossum was able to perfect a new technology called CMOS or complementary metal oxide semiconductor in a lab at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) (NASA Technology Transfer Program). A technique used in CCD’s, called intra-pixel charge transfer with correlated double sampling, allowed for a reduction in signal noise when applied to CMOS devices (NASA Technology Transfer Program). The result was a clearer image and reduced energy consumption. This development meant that most of the camera electronics could be put on a single computer chip while still using CMOS processing. This would allow for a significantly smaller and more energy efficient imaging sensor, not to mention more cost effective (NASA Technology Transfer Program). CMOS digital image sensors were cultivated by NASA scientist Eric Fossum who saw the technology’s potential. He licensed his invention and created a company called Photobit to make custom CMOS devices. The company also licensed their technology to other companies, most notably Kodak, Intel and Logitech, who made webcams and DSLR’s using CMOS technology. Photobit was sold in the early 2000’s to Micron technology and patents returned back to their original birthplace, CalTech, and the top electronic companies (Sony, Samsung, etc) now license the technology. CMOS technology has cornered the market seeing as how it is being used in almost all digital cameras around the world. Six years ago, in 2013, CMOS sensors reached yearly production of more than 1 billion dollars. Two years later, in 2015, the market for the sensors as a whole was up to almost 10 billion dollars (NASA Technology Transfer Program). Since the invention is licensed by California Institute of Technology, they receive money which funds research and education however the university’s chief innovation and corporate partnerships officer, Fred Farina says that it’s only part of the benefit. Farina goes on to say, ‘This helps motivate other researchers at Caltech and JPL, and for the whole culture of entrepreneurship it’s really powerful to have good stories.” (NASA Technology Transfer Program). Not only has it affected the culture of entrepreneurship like Farina says, it inspires and motivates current and future students. This gives everyone the chance to see the possibilities astronomy can have way beyond just astronomy.
If CCD technology had not been created and used for astronomical imagining, the Hubble Telescope wouldn’t have been able to capture the images that it has, nor would CMOS technology have been improved. This would have limited today’s society to very little information about the universe and an inability to take selfies for Snapchat or just use a digital camera at all much less your phone camera. If time and money wasn’t spent on astronomy, the world would be nothing like it is today. We must continue to fund astronomy so it can keep providing the world with not only scientific discoveries but technological ones as well. Those technological discoveries help our society advance in areas such as medicine, agriculture, communication, education, productivity – the possibilities are endless. One of these many possibilities is one of existential nature: learning about us. Where we are in the world. How we got here. When we got here. That can only be achieved through science. Among the many issues in society today, the survival of our species and our planet has been a hot topic. In order to fully understand the Earth, we must understand the Sun and the effect it has on Earth’s climate and how it will continue to effect it. The study of the Sun and other stars will help us to understand issues such as our time left on Earth but also ones like it.
Arguably, social media has become today’s main facet in 21st century culture. We have the ability to take pictures or video anytime, anywhere. This has resulted in social media overwhelming our daily life. It allows you to connect to anyone anywhere in the world at any time via pictures, videos, video calls etc. This has opened the world to so many opportunities never thought possible before. Now we are able to share information all over the world. We can see what our grandma’s cats look like in the custom sweaters she knitted for them with the scroll of a finger. But perhaps more importantly (no offense grandma), the ability to raise awareness about issues affecting society. Remember the ALS ice bucket challenge? Just in case you’re not one of the billions of people using social media, the challenge involved social media users to video themselves pouring ice over their body mimicking the sensation someone with ALS experiences. Everyone from celebrities, to politicians, to your friends and family, from all parts of the world participated. Towards the end of its campaign, there was millions of videos posted raising more than 100 million dollars. A simple video caused a sensation. Not only does practically the whole world know about ALS now, it raised funds to continue research and fight the disease. Had CCD technology not been invented for astronomical imaging, it would have never been used to perfect CMOS technology and we wouldn’t have been able to develop digital cameras as we know them today.
The cynical among us might say ‘so what?’. The constant documentation of the magnificent and mundane details of our lives is ruining the human race. Point taken. However, that same technology that let us show grandmas cat sweaters, also gives us the ability to creep upon new discoveries that help us learn more about our time on Earth. Astronomy provided us with that. Astronomy has provided us with technology that has changed the world. Whether you agree with it or not, astronomy is changing the world as we know it. The famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus described astronomy saying, ‘The strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects. This is the discipline that deals with the universe’s divine revolutions, the stars’ motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings . . . for what is more beautiful than heaven?’ We must continue to teach and research astronomy as time goes on. There is no telling what we will discover. After all, who would have thought technology used by NASA to study astronomy would be the same technology used by cameras in our phones today?