In times of economic hardship, it's a common refrain that we should be spending money here at home, not in outer space. Why fund speculative, fantastical studies when everyday folks in America need help today? I was reminded this morning, though, about the serendipitous discoveries which can emerge from even the least-useful sounding research.
A physicist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center has been developing a laser system to measure the size of dust plumes kicked up by the thrusters of spacecraft landing on the Moon. His aim is to protect the Apollo landing sites by determining how close future landers can approach before doing harm. In order to test the system here on Earth, he needed a moving collection of small particles to shine his laser at, so he took it outside and pointed it at the rain. The result? A more accurate measure of the size of raindrops, an important factor in weather modelling.
In the wake of recent mega-storms, such as Sandy, which cost billions of dollars and scores of lives, the pittance spent on this project must now seem a wise investment. How many similar projects would be cut if NASA's budget is substantially slashed?