The Royal Astronomical Society has released a booklet (that can be downloaded here). Called A New View of the Universe, it advertises itself as Big Science for the Big Society and aims to show the impact on wider society of astronomy and space science.
One big impact made is satellite communications. Fifty years ago today, Echo 1A, also known as Echo 1, was launched. A 30 metre diameter balloon, its job was to act as a mirror so radio transmissions could be bounced over the horizon to far off places. It handled telephone, radio and television signals and reentered the atmosphere eight years later. The Echo satellites allowed research to be carried out on atmospheric density (the drag on the satellite orbits), solar pressure (light reflecting off the surfaces and transmitting momentum, the basis of solar sail technology) and gossamer structures.
But that isn’t the only iconic part of the space program undergoing an anniversary today. Thirty three years ago, the space shuttle Enterprise made its first unmanned glide to the ground. Here’s some footage from 1977 of the device breaking free from the air craft carrying it:
Of course aliens, the possibility that somewhere in this massive universe another speck of dust around a star may be crawling with living things, has been known to make an impact on our culture too. Movies, not necessarily 100% accurate, or indeed anywhere near, and books have kept us entertained. Some people have taken the entertainment value a little too far, but that’s a problem with runaway hypotheses too detached from hard science. Like Chinese whispers, science can turn from potentially plausible to possible in just the flick of a journalist phrase or copy editor’s decision.
The best bet in these cases is to reengage people with the scientists and scientific facilities. Outreach programs such as this recent photowalk conducted at five particle physics facilities around the world enable direct communication between the public and researchers. Instant packets of information sent via protocols developed at CERN and in many cases using communication methods developed for the space age show one way in which Big Science has contributed to making a much smaller society.