Physics in Space Science & Technology

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to explain how physics is involved in space science and technological developments. A short quiz will follow.

Physics and Space Science

Have you ever wondered how we're able to send a spacecraft hurtling past Pluto at 37,000 mph? Or how we've been able to take stunning photos of the universe using the Hubble Telescope? Or how we know what the atmosphere of Venus is made of? This is all part of space science, and space science wouldn't be possible without physics.

Physics is a branch of science that tries to explain the universe using fundamental laws and mathematics. The goal of physics is to explain everything, from the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, all the way up to galaxies and the universe as a whole. It tries to break these laws down into basic mathematical relationships.

Space science isn't any one single field: it includes astronomy, astrophysics, aerospace engineering, and may even reference astrobiology or astrochemistry. Space science can also include the history of spaceflight and exploration. It's basically the study of everything related to space, including where and how life might form in places other than Earth.

Physics is integral to space science, because if we don't understand how our universe works, we can't begin to explore it. We had to understand that the Moon was a body that orbits the Earth before we could even think of going there. We also had to understand the laws of gravity and the distances and movement between bodies in space before we could successfully build a rocket to get anywhere and back.

Sending shuttles into space would not be possible without physics
Sending Shuttles Into Space Would Not Be Possible Without Physics

Understanding the compositions of stars and planets, and how they form, allows astrobiologists to talk competently about the elements that may be present in different parts of the solar system. The technologies we use to communicate with astronauts also came as a result of discoveries in physics. In a very real way, all of space science is reliant on physics.

Mars Curiosity Rover looking for life on behalf of astrobiologists
Mars Curiosity Rover Looking for Life on Behalf of Astrobiologists

Physics and Technology

Although we've already talked a little about how the technology of spaceflight is reliant on physics, the connection between physics and technology goes much further.

Physics has helped us develop medical technologies like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners, x-rays, radiation therapy for cancer treatment, and ventilators for patients whose lungs can't breathe for them.

  • MRI scanners use giant magnets to take pictures of the inside of the human body, including the brain itself. They do this by aligning all the magnetic particles in your body, and detecting how long it takes for the particles in different tissues to go back to normal.
  • X-rays use waves in a particular part of the electromagnetic spectrum to create images of your bones: x-rays can go through your soft tissues, but bounce off your bones.
  • Radiation therapy uses another part of the electromagnetic spectrum to kill cancer cells.
  • Ventilators use the physics principles of pressure and fluid flow to artificially work your lungs.

MRI Scanners work based on physics principles
MRI Scanners Work Based on Physics Principles

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