Archives for category: Technology


For my culminating post, I want to reflect on how my perspective on space and the future of astronomy has changed over the course of Astronomy 201. Firstly, everything I learned in this course, from gravity and planetary formation to stars and habitable zones, has given me a fundamental and scientifically realistic understanding of space and our galaxy. I think we all grow up with some part of us pondering the dark vastness of space, and how it relates to the human condition. This class allowed me to take those essential, soulful curiosities and put them into concrete terms. As much as this concreteness has solidified my understanding of mankind’s astronomical world, I still view the universe as an inescapable enigma.


Thinking about the future of astronomy for this post brings me to an interesting understanding of astronomy’s immediate importance for our civilization. I think that having a sense of the physical processes that shape our universe, and being aware of our surroundings in space (including potential dangers and possible benefits), are absolutely essential knowledge for the continuance and well being of our peoples.  For example, the ability to detect and avoid collisions with interstellar objects in an Armageddon-type scenario is no longer the sole product of Hollywood’s special effects. Although these types of events are rare, I am grateful that astronomy and technology have made us less helpless in the realm of space. More realistic, however, is our potential need for resources on other planets, or even colonization off of Earth. This point leads me to the more biological concept of Malthusian catastrophe and the idea that Earth, despite our best technological efforts, cannot indefinitely support our exponentially growing population. Although there are many ways we could lessen population strain on our planet (our negative environmental impact could arguably be included as strain), it is difficult to argue that such changes can or will be effectively pursued by Earth’s population before catastrophic occurrence. I strongly believe that astronomy is one of the few sciences that might be able to save us from catastrophe, and it may be the most promising.

The greatest barrier to human exploration of space is undoubtedly the vast distances and time lengths required to travel from one stellar body to the next. This post will outline some potential modes of interstellar propulsion:

Magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) Thrusters

As described by NASA, MPD thrusters are the most powerful form of electromagnetic propulsion. They use charged particles from ionized gas as fuel (xenon, lithium, neon), feed them into an acceleration chamber and out a nozzle to produce thrusts of up to 200,000 MPH. Unfortunately, these thrusters require hundreds of kilowatts to generate acceleration, requiring power generation on the scale of nuclear power plants.

Bussard Interstellar Ramjet

The Bussard Interstellar Ramjet propulsion system draws its fuel from space itself. Developed in 1960 by Dr. Robert Bussard, this “ramjet” uses an electromagnetic field to collect interstellar hydrogen, which is compressed in the craft’s cylinder shaped body and expelled as propellant for a fusion rocket. The speed of the craft is mostly dependent on the density of hydrogen in front of the vacuum-like Bussard Collector. Some estimate that the Bussard Ramjet could move at 77% the speed of light. (The EnterpriseD has two “Bussard Collectors” that were used as emergency fuel sources for the warp drive).

Solar Sail and Beamed Solar Sail

This technology is true to its name and very real. Solar sails use solar photons to push a hair-thin reflective carbon-fiber fabric in a fashion similar to using wind against sails to move across water. This technology has been successfully created by NASA and put to use by the Japanese. IKAROS, a Japanese solar sail, traveled to Venus in 2010, proving the technology for intrasolar missions. Solar sails to not need fuel, but are propelled via solar pressure or self-generated lasers. Because of its sail mechanics, this craft takes years to build up speed, but can reach velocities of 100,000 MPH and more. – Latest solar sail project from my hometown!


On July 5, 2012, the world’s largest laser fired a record shattering shot that generated more power than the entire United States does at any given moment. The laser, located in Livermore, California, is housed in a building the size of three football fields dubbed the National Ignition Facility (photo above). The NIF laser is an extraordinary machine of precision. Each experimental shot requires the coordination of 60,000 control points including motorized mirrors and lenses, sensors, amplifiers, cameras and more, ultimately targeting a point about the size of a pencil eraser. 192 beams of optically amplified, electromagnetic radiation-emitting light, that all fire within a few trillionths of a second, combine to produce 500 terawatts of peak power and 1.85 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light.


Funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the NIF’s primary mission is to provide a better understanding of the physics behind nuclear reactions. However, this remarkable technology is also helping to conquer the physical barriers of scientific observation. The laser can generate temperatures of more than 100 million degrees and pressures more than 100 billion times Earth’s atmosphere. These conditions can potentially simulate the extreme states of matter found in the cores of planets, stars and other celestial objects, giving astronomers and physicist an unprecedented view of stellar mechanics. One hopeful goal for the NIF laser is to develop an understanding of fusion ignition, the point at which nuclear fusion (the process by which stars burn) becomes self-sustaining. Achieving laboratory fusion ignition would theoretically allow scientists to provide abundant and sustainable clean energy through nuclear fusion by converting mass into incredible amounts of energy. Experts still speculate on the timeline of such achievements, noting the technical challenges of putting star stuff in a container.

For more images and videos of the NIF laser, including a fascinating Ted Talk by Dr. Ed Moses, click the second photo above!


Spectroscopy refers to the interactions between matter and light, or radiated energy, and the dispersion of an object’s light into its various wavelengths (i.e. colors). Dissecting an object’s light through spectroscopy helps modern astronomers determine the physical properties of stars. However, the study of light aids more than just astronomers in scientific battles today. New technology known as HINS-light (high-intensity narrow-spectrum) is utilizing nuances of spectroscopy to fight off highly resistant hospital bacteria that plague health systems nation wide. Developed at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland by a multidisciplinary team of experts, the HINS-light decontaminates the air and exposed surfaces with a light focused on a narrow band of visible-light at a 405 nm wavelength (violet). The new technology kills pathogens and is harmless to patients and staff, allowing for the continuous decontamination of hospital rooms. The HINS-light works by using its narrow spectrum of light to excite molecules within bacteria, which then release highly reactive chemicals that are lethal to the tiny prokaryotes. Clinical trials proved the current HINS-light system capable of reducing surface bacterial levels by 86%!