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How can astronomy improve life on earth?

Much of astronomy is concerned with understanding distant phenomena, seeing the invisible, and studying the most extreme events in the Universe. But how does this pursuit help our daily lives here on Earth?

Our Work

The need for extremely precise instrumentation in astronomy can often be transferred into the medical field. Beyond pure research, which benefits humanity through various technological applications, some laboratories at the Center for Astrophysics pursue research that’s more directly beneficial. 

High-energy and neutron optics laboratories design mirrors for the next generation of space-based telescopes. But with a simple modification, these optics can accurately aim high-energy particles for radiation treatment, focusing on destroying tumors while leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. Engineers are working on mirrors that can both focus neutrons from across the Universe, as well as those from a radioactive source sitting in the same room.

Work on nuclear magnetic resonance, which can be used to study molecular physics, can also be used to scan the human body. When used for imaging, this is known as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Scientists at the CfA are developing an open-access, low-magnetic-field human MRI instrument, that can be used for molecular imaging and the study of traumatic brain injury.

On the other side of the coin, astrophysics sometimes adapts technology from the medical field. The complicated debris leftover after a supernova explosion, known as a supernova remnant, can be hard to visualize. We only have our vantage point and cannot travel around the remnant to view the intricacies of its structure. But by measuring how fast the material is traveling, and whether it’s traveling towards us or away, we can create a 3D map of the material’s motion. Supernova researchers are putting this data into medical imaging software originally designed for brain scans to get a 3D model that can be viewed in 360 degrees. To take it one step further, the models can then be 3D printed, allowing you to hold a dead star in your hand.

The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian sets the standard for astronomical discovery. By pursuing scientific research, our scientists never know what might be the next big breakthrough. New detector technology means better lighter cameras. Astronomical data analysis software can be reconfigured to make cars safer. Novel techniques in radio astronomy paved the way for wireless internet. We don’t know what we are going to find, but we will never know if we don’t look.