Space Technology Can Help Sustain Earth

Satellite imagery and communication are powerful aids in confronting humanitarian and environmental issues.

The 2014 Sabina Wildfire in California, captured by low-cost satellites created by Planet Labs

Space exploration or humanitarianism? This was the choice I was torn between my first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was active in both SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), a student-led group to explore space, and STAND, a student-led group to end mass atrocities. While drawn to space because of the limitless unanswered questions it posed, I questioned how I could warrant spending time in an observatory when I could be spending time on humanitarian efforts that directly and immediately help people.

On the morning of October 22, 2011, those questions were answered. I listened to a data scientist from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative deliver a lecture on using satellite imagery to identify mass atrocities. Using imagery from DigitalGlobe, the Initiative had found visual evidence of mass graves in South Kordofan, Sudan that were consistent with reports of mass killings in the region. The imagery also revealed evidence of the intentional burning of the Blue Nile, Sudan village of ‘Amara by the Sudan Armed Forces. The satellite imagery corroborated eyewitness reports from locals and enabled reporters and humanitarian organizations to provide evidence of these crimes to the international community.

That same year, Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based space startup, was born in the garage of the Bay Area’s Rainbow Mansion with the mission of using space to help life on Earth. Planet Labs recognized that the high cost and low cadence of existing government and commercial Earth-imaging platforms made them insufficient for detecting change—be it in in villages, forests, or economies—on our planet on a timescale required to detect many problems. These spacecraft were so large and expensive that we could operate just a few at any given time, taking months or even years to acquire a complete picture of our planet.

Planet Labs aimed to create Earth-imaging spacecraft—called ‘doves’ as a symbol of their peaceful mission—that are a fraction of the size and cost of any other Earth-imaging spacecraft. They are succeeding. With access to this high-cadence data, the Amazon Conservation Association was able to prove the perpetration of illegal gold mining in Southern Peru in images spanning just three months, from January 2016 to March 2016, hardly a month after the images had been collected. With their constellation of dove satellites, Planet Labs captured imagery of the Sabina forest fire in 2014 just ten minutes after the fire was reported, helping to estimate the spread and extent of the fire.

Descartes Labs, a startup spun off from Los Alamos National Laboratory, is using the influx of data from Planet Labs and other Earth imagery providers to predict corn crop yields faster and more accurately than previously possible by the USDA at a resolution of 1/500th of an acre. San Francisco startup Space Know is synthesizing thousands of images from these imagery companies to provide an objective means of assessing the health of manufacturing in China’s economy. This Earth data deluge is also being used by startup Orbital Insight to monitor global and local changes in surface water at a timescale on the order of weeks to understand the intensity of the drought in California and other parched regions.

Earth imagery isn’t the only way companies are using space to help solve global challenges. In the modern world, communication and information access has become a basic human need that is currently inaccessible to half of the world’s population. OneWeb was founded in 2014 to solve this problem, designing a constellation of 648 low-cost small satellites to provide complete Wi-Fi, 3G, and LTE coverage for the entire planet. They have raised an initial $500 million from investors including Coca-Cola, Virgin, and Airbus to begin launching their satellites and building ground terminals in 2018. They plan to have a fully operational fleet providing access to rural and underdeveloped areas by 2020.

Container vessels move 90 percent of global trade each year, but we can’t accurately track the vessels’ AIS (Automatic Identification System) signals through much of its journey using ground-based receivers due to the curvature of the Earth. Spire is using AIS receivers on low-cost satellites to provide global coverage for ship tracking impossible before. Not only does this provide companies with near real-time positioning of their vessels and goods, it also enables governments to detect illegal fishing and shipping piracy. Spire also uses their satellites to perform GPS radio occultation for improving weather forecasting—measuring how signals from GPS satellites in higher orbits have been impacted by varying conditions in Earth’s atmosphere.

Space, more affordable and accessible now than ever before, is becoming an increasingly important tool in our efforts to sustain Earth. It was hard to predict how the personal computer would affect people’s lives even though mainframes had been around for a while. Before consumer aircraft, when airplanes were prohibitively expensive and inaccessible, we never imagined that they’d play critical roles in agricultural activity like dusting and fertilizing crops. As the space industry undergoes its own transformation, companies should be looking for creative applications of space technology to solve challenges on Earth, such as farming in desert regions, providing access to drinkable water, and utilizing alternative energy sources. We must explore space to sustain Earth.

Space technology studied for heart surgery.

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A Chicago heart surgeon is trying to determine whether a cooling technology originally developed for astronauts could help patients recover more quickly after open-heart surgery.

The device, called a “Cooling Cap,” uses targeted hypothermia to slow brain activity, potentially limiting or preventing damage by reducing the metabolic demands on the brain.

“You can slow down the metabolism, decrease the pathways and turn off mechanisms that can create adverse outcomes for the patient,” said Paul J. Pearson, M.D., Ph.D., a co-director for NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Cardiovascular Institute in Chicago, who is leading a feasibility study on the device for use during cardiac surgery.

Doctors have used techniques to lowering body temperature during cardiac surgery for decades as a way to minimize the detrimental effects of using the heart-lung machine, a “pump” that temporarily takes over the function of the heart and lungs during surgery.

Originally designed along with other cooling garments used by astronauts to protect them from the extremes of space, the “Cooling Cap” received a grant by the U.S. Department of Defense for use treating traumatic brain injuries on battlefields and gained Food and Drug Administration approval for such use in 2012. The ongoing study is the first to use the technology for heart surgery.

By cooling the brain during surgery, Pearson hopes to speed recovery times by reducing common side effects such as delirium, slow or difficult waking from anesthesia and temporary cognitive disruption. He said studies have shown that patients who experience such side effects following surgery don’t recover as well as those who don’t and may also experience worse survival rates.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a point where we can take very sick and complex patients through heart surgery and have them wake up like a 30-year-old who had a hernia repair,” Pearson said. “This is one more technique that may improve outcomes that are already significantly better than they were 10 years ago.”

Pearson and his colleagues are initially using the technology on 20 patients undergoing heart surgery at NorthShore to see if it could be used in the operating room without disrupting the medical team or other equipment needed for the procedure. Once that study is complete, the technology would undergo a larger study analyzing patient outcomes.

NASA goes green.

The agency is currently testing two technologies borrowed from the realm of science fiction. If they prove successful, humankind could go farther than before with much less fuel.

The NASA budget request for the fiscal year 2015 is studded with nuggets indicative of how the behemoth space agency plans to take its space exploration program forward. In total, it is asking for $17.5 billion, about 1% less than what it received in 2014 and up $600 million from what it receiving in 2013. Broken down, the biggest chunks are for human exploration operations ($7.8 billion) and scientific research ($4.9 billion).

Some of the more resplendent nuggets among the request are development of an asteroid sampling mission, the proposed launch of a spacecraft to study Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons that was recently seen ejecting plumes of water vapour) in the mid 2020s, more Mars missions, and keeping the James Webb Space Telescope launch on track for 2018 (after multiple overruns in the last few years). With the exception of the Europa mission, none of these are surprising.

The NASA ion thruster in action.

But take a closer look at the request and you’ll see that the space agency is also developing a slew of greener alternatives to various existing systems, notably propulsion. Under the space technology category, the agency is proposing development of “high-powered solar electric propulsion capability”, “higher-performing alternative to toxic hydrazine”, and the launch of a propellant-free spacecraft called the “Sunjammer Solar Sail”.

The Sunjammer is named for the Arthur C. Clarke story of the same name, published in 1963. The mission itself aims to launch a spacecraft equipped with a 13,000-square foot sail which will use sunlight to tug the craft like the wind pulls along a sailboat. Despite its big size, it weighs about 32 kg because it is only 5 μm thick, made from a synthetic fabric called kapton. It is expected to be launched in January 2015.

Although the Sunjammer sail is the largest solar-sail to have been built, the idea is not new and has been tested before. In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched Ikaros, which sailed toward Venus equipped with a sail that became the first successful demonstration of the technology in interplanetary space. In 2011, NASA itself deployed the Nanosail-D, a nanosatellite that floated around our planet powered by a 9.2-square meter solar sail.

If the 2015 mission is successful, NASA has said it will look at more ambitious missions. This will be alongside other greener propellants it is considering as an alternative to hydrazine. A liquid fuel which is highly corrosive to the touch, hydrazine’s use incurs higher transportation costs, and the rocket can be loaded with hydrazine only at the launchpad, not anytime before. In July last year, NASA announced one such alternative it was developing had passed a critical test, paving the way for its first deployment in 2015.

Dubbed AF-M315E, the liquid is simply hydroxyl ammonium nitrate. Although ammonium nitrate is an explosive substance, the presence of the ‘hydroxyl’ means that its melting point drops from around 170 degrees Celsius to around 70 degrees Celsius, making it harder to ignite. On the counts more relevant to rocket fuels, however, NASA has said it is way more efficient than hydrazine. A propulsion system to work with M315E is being developed by Utah-based Ball Aerospace and a subcontractor, Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The third piece of technology – electric propulsion – is being geared for orbit transfer manoeuvres of satellites, and to “accommodate” their “increasing power demands”. Perhaps you’ll remember apopular video in September, 2013, that demonstrated an ion drive in action, which is basically an electric propulsion system. Such a system accelerates ions using electric and magnetic fields, and uses their resultant kinetic energy to cause thrust of about 15-50 km/s.

The ion drive, encompassed by the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project, burns less than one-tenth the volume of fuel than do conventional fuels to generate the same momentum. This means more space is available on board the spacecraft for scientific payloads.

Aside from the fact that NASA’s decision to go greener signals the start of the decoupling of distance and quantity of fuel, the progress is made more fortuitous by being accompanied by more space- and fuel-efficient spacecraft design. In the words of the British essayist J.G. Ballard: “Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” Let’s make that the 21st as well.

Space technology company builds a functioning artificial heart.

Space technology company builds a functioning artificial heart

Space technology company builds a functioning artificial heart

An artificial heart that took 15 years to develop has been approved for human trials. The device, which was fashioned from biological tissue and parts of miniature satellite equipment, combines the latest advances in medicine, biology, electronics, and materials science.

It’s built by the Paris-based company Carmat and it’s the brainchild of French cardiac surgeon Alain Carpentier. The state-of-the-art device is the result of a collaboration with aerospace giant Astrium, the space subsidiary of EADS, along with support from the French government.

In order for it to qualify for human trials, the developers had to create a heart that could withstand the demanding conditions of the body’s circulatory system. It has to pump 35 million times per year for at least five years — and without fail. This is why Carpentier’s team turned to space technology, which is known for its resilience and compact size.

“Space and the inside of your body have a lot in common,” said Astrium’s Matthieu Dollon in an ESA statement. “They both present harsh and inaccessible environments.”

Indeed, Telecom satellites have similar demands placed upon them; they have to last for at least 15 years and function 36,000 km above Earth.

“Failure in space is not an option,” he added. “Nor is onsite maintenance. If a part breaks down, we cannot simply go and fix it. It’s the same inside the body.”

Space technology company builds a functioning artificial heart

In addition to space-tech, the artificial heart combines synthetic and biological materials as well as sensors and software to detect a patient’s level of exertion and adjust output accordingly. MIT‘s Technology Review explains more:

In Carmat’s design, two chambers are each divided by a membrane that holds hydraulic fluid on one side. A motorized pump moves hydraulic fluid in and out of the chambers, and that fluid causes the membrane to move; blood flows through the other side of each membrane. The blood-facing side of the membrane is made of tissue obtained from a sac that surrounds a cow’s heart, to make the device more biocompatible. “The idea was to develop an artificial heart in which the moving parts that are in contact with blood are made of tissue that is [better suited] for the biological environment,” says Piet Jansen, chief medical officer of Carmat.

That could make patients less reliant on anti-coagulation medications. The Carmat device also uses valves made from cow heart tissue and has sensors to detect increased pressure within the device. That information is sent to an internal control system that can adjust the flow rate in response to increased demand, such as when a patient is exercising.