Sun Herald | 30 September 2007
By Daniel Dasey
WHEN the Soviet Union succeeded in placing the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit in 1957, news of the event spread around the world laboriously through undersea phone lines and clunky telephone exchanges.
It says much about the enduring influence of the feat, which occurred 50 years ago this week, that news events today can be communicated nearly instantaneously, courtesy of a network of communications satellites - Sputnik’s technological offspring.
The world has gained much from the space age, most importantly in the ways we view ourselves. Professor Iver Cairns, the chairman of the National Committee for Space Science, nominates GPS navigation systems as among the major advances. Add to that satellite weather analysis systems, which have greatly enhanced the ability of forecasters to predict violent storms.
The space age has also added a string of new products and product names to our lexicon: Teflon, fire retardant material, vacuum material, space blankets. Sentimentalists may add Space Food Sticks and Tang to the list. Robotics and remote-sensing technology have also undergone enormous advances due to space programs.
Wilson da Silva, editor-in-chief of Cosmos magazine, says the space age has also been responsible for identifying at least three global threats. Speaking at the 7th Australian Space Science Conference last week, he said it was space scientists studying Venus who first identified the hole in the ozone layer.
Venus was also central in demonstrating the devastating consequences of a build-up of greenhouse gases on Earth. Scientists established that a runaway greenhouse effect was responsible for a dramatic change in that planet’s surface temperature.
It was observations of a global sandstorm on Mars in the 1960s that alerted science to the potential for a devastating nuclear winter on Earth, should a nuclear war break out.
But Cairns argues the most significant benefits might be less tangible. The prospect of exploring and colonising distant galaxies has sparked our collective imagination and lifted the spirits of millions. In addition, images of the Earth taken from space have driven home to many the fact that we all share one fragile planet.
“I think one of the big things is people realising that we are on a world in the middle of a vacuum,” he says. “We are an oasis of life in the solar system and, as far as we know yet, in the universe.”