This is the Irish winner of ESA's XMM Essay Competition "What's new Mr. Galileo?":


Even from birth, humans have an inbuilt curiosity to explore the world around them – whether it be exploring the playpen, discovering America, or sending a man to the moon. A baby has the instinct to reach out and explore its surroundings. The ultimate expression of this in adulthood is the exploration of space.

From the beginning of mankind?s time on this earth, there has been a fascination among us about astronomy and space. From the earliest texts, we can see that mankind has studied and recorded such events as comets, meteor showers, stages of the moon and have grouped the stars into the constellations we still recognise today. We know that astronomy and the stars were important to ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, whose pyramids were built in line with stars that were considered significant. Monuments like Stonehenge and Newgrange were built according to the solar, lunar and stellar cycles.

The universe contains billions upon billions of stars, planets and other celestial objects, and yet still most of the universe, as we know it, is empty space. So it is difficult to envision the distances between celestial bodies. For example, the distance between the sun and the nearest star, Alfa Centuri (approximately 42.6 trillion kilometres) is difficult to comprehend as we are used to dealing with smaller distances in our everyday lives. Because these distances are so vast, we measure them in light years (the distance light travels in one year). One light year approximates to 9.461 trillion km. Light travels at about 300,000 kilometres per second. Fascinating facts like these compel humans to explore, and to expand our knowledge of the Universe.

Many benefits have come from the exploration of the solar system. Many things have been discovered by scientists while conducting experiments in space, such as the portable computer, new techniques for diagnosing AIDS, advances in blood pressure control and in the area of physical therapy. Natural objects in space, such as the sun, are beneficial to mankind, in the form of solar power and the fact that the sun is the basis for all life. Also, as soon as it is economically practical to extract minerals and metals from the asteroid belt, it will provide an enormous source of raw materials. Space travel also fulfils mankind?s yearning to explore and accumulate knowledge. It has also brought nations together as they co-operate in building and maintaining spacecraft such as the international space station and as they share their knowledge to further expand the human mind.

As we gaze up at the heavens on a clear night, many questions enter our minds - what is out there that we cannot see? How many stars are out there? How far away are they? And the most common question – are there any other beings out there gazing at their night sky pondering the same things? But mostly as we gaze into the centre of the Milky Way and beyond, we are overwhelmed and left speechless by the beauty of it all.

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