Frank White, author of ‘The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution’, once noted that ‘if fish could think at our level of intelligence, back before humanity existed, and some fish were starting to venture up on land, a lot of them would be saying, just as we do now about space: “Why would we want to go there? What's the point?” And they'd have literally no idea of what venturing onto land was going to mean.’
When man first landed on the moon in 1969, many hoped and believed that it would herald a new era of space exploration. For people who thought that we’d be living like the Jetsons now, it may still be unclear how it has impacted humanity. It is important to remember though that it is a huge evolutionary step. There is also now a vast amount of data being collected by the thousands of satellites and telescopes. This is being leveraged for insights that could help us in many ways.
In 2018, a group of organizations from across the world will start construction of the largest radio telescope ever built, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA will generate 700 terabytes of data per second about space, the stars, moons and planets. When working at full capacity, its aperture arrays are expected to produce 100 times more data than the entire Internet. This is to say nothing of the hundreds of terabytes of data generated by NASA’s unmanned space missions every hour, and the thousands of satellites.
NASA faces a number of challenges with this data. Firstly, in finding where to store such huge quantities, and how to go about making sense of it. Amazon and NASA have joined forces to produce the NASA Earth Exchange (NEX) platform. NEX is a collaboration and analytical tool that combines state-of-the-art supercomputing, Earth system modeling, workflow management and NASA remote-sensing data. It opens up the possibilities of the Cloud for helping store the information, which data visualization tools can then make accessible to a wide range of people with different skill sets to analyze.
Another challenge is beaming the data back to Earth from space. Most current space missions use radio frequency to transfer data, which is relatively slow - roughly the same speed as a 1990s phone modem. The New Horizons spacecraft, for instance, finally reached Pluto this year after a decade. It is the first space project to have sent a vehicle to explore a world so far away from Earth, three billion miles away, and NASA estimates that it is going to take roughly 16 months for it to send back all the data its been storing for the past ten tears.
Is overcoming these challenges worth it? Using all of the information sent back from Pluto, NASA can create a geological history of the former planet, building finely detailed topographic maps to determine the depths and heights of Pluto’s terrain, and how that terrain was shaped over the years. And it is not just other worlds that we can learn about, satellites are also looking down on us so that we can learn more about our planet. The reflections of microwaves beamed at forests can show where their ecosystems are under stress, map differences in gravity on the Earth’s surface to calculate how much groundwater is stored in aquifers, and warn of issues with soil conditions. Space is infinite, and there is always new data being sent. Analyzing this will take more than just Governments, it will likely also need substantial private investment, and there is a huge opportunity for tech start-ups looking to find ways to help with it. And it’s vital they do. As science fiction writer Larry Niven once said, ‘the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!’