Aerospace Advances Inspired by Astronomy

In this guest blog, Megan Ray Nichols explores some ways in which developments in Astronomy and space have made their way into the aerospace sector

Of all the flights that people take, none top the flights into space, whether to launch humans or satellites that peer into our univese. Such work has made contributed to pretty amazing changes in civilian flights. There are a lot of advances that astronomy helped make happen, including everything from medicine to agriculture. But flight? That’s a big one. It’s the first obstacle that had to be overcome even to consider space travel. We couldn’t think about anything else until we knew we could get outside of Earth’s atmosphere. From there, we got a lot of new inventions, some of which you probably use daily!


Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) can’t operate without work in space. We need to launch satellites up into orbit, all over the planet, to get a good look at the world.  It got started during the Cold War when the US became incredibly interested in whatever Russia might be launching into space and tracking our sensitive materials. Eventually, it was figured out that we could monitor our nuke-carrying submarines with the Doppler Effect.

The military decided that this was neat, and helped launch the first Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR). It consisted of only 24 satellites and became fully functional in 1993.

Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS)

The average GPS can be off by about 16 feet (4.8 meters) with no interference. The closer you get to buildings or trees, the worse it can be. This makes a difference when you’re coming into land at an airport, surrounded by other planes, buildings, and trying to land in all kinds of weather.

WAAS helps to make sure civilian flights are as safe as they can be. By mapping the ionosphere, we’re able to mitigate issues with space weather that can interrupt signals. This helps airlines to receive continual, accurate signals to make the flights as safe as possible.

Metal Injection Molding

Injection molding is a well-known and popular method of creating durable, flexible plastics. It’s the most efficient molding process and allows products to be manufactured quickly and cheaply. But plastic can’t be used for everything, so it’s exciting that NASA’s JPL laboratory, partnered with Brigham Young University, has found a way to use metal for injection moldings. A collection of metal alloys, called “bulk metallic glasses” can be injection molded like plastics.

This is great news for things that need to be able to move on spacecraft like mirrors and antenna. The metal can flex, but won’t be permanently misshapen. As the technology improves, it’s likely to be used in all kinds of applications, including commercial aircraft.


Airplanes are expensive, and most of their design is proprietary. There’s a lot of money to be made in it, after all. Up until very recently, the only way to develop an aircraft was with CAD software, which is both expensive and difficult to use. It’s not something most people can just pick up without some training. NASA decided to change that.

NASA has always relied on amateurs for help. Amateur astronomers help report all kinds of anomalies that a single organization would miss. It’s hard to monitor the entire sky, after all. The solution to this was OpenVSP, which allows anyone with a computer to design their own aircraft. Or really, almost anything you want. The program is much more flexible than CAD, enabling designers to create aircraft, buildings, vehicles, and even rockets!

Supercritical Airfoil

The wings on a plane were standard until Richard T. Whitcomb had an idea. He came up with what is now known as the “area rule,” which states a wing with a taper at the fuselage can pass the sound barrier easier than one that doesn’t. If this sounds complicated, it’s not. The fuselage is where the wing attaches to the main body of the aircraft. By creating the taper and adding an arc to the underside of the wing, the design significantly reduces drag on the wings.

This isn’t something that most commercial jets are doing, but it has made a huge difference for the military. The wing design allowed for huge fuel savings. Dropping from Mach 0.9 to 0.85 allowed 20% savings on the Boeing 787.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it does go to show just how important our space programs are. Without them, we would miss far more than just GPS and safe commercial flights. Everything has been impacted by our work to explore the universe, and we’re only just getting started.

This blog post was written by Megan Ray Nichols, a Freelance Science Writer. Find her at Content in the blog post is copyright of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of the Office of Astronomy for Development.