Citizen Science Ventures Into Space

The CruxBy Guest BloggerMay 21, 2013 7:04 PM


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by Kiki Sanford

Inside a nondescript office building in Mountain View, California, a gathering took place recently that might have been a glimpse into the future. At first, the people, like the building, didn’t offer many hints of what that future might look like. They came from all walks of life: young, old, students, businesspeople, men and women. Then they started talking. Rockets, microgravity, space planes, moon bases, gas stations in orbit – if you didn’t know better, you would think you had walked into a science fiction conference. But, in this case, reality is much better than fiction. These everyday people were learning how to design science experiments to take place in low Earth orbit. The majority of attendees at the Space Hackers Workshop weren’t scientists. They were part of the growing movement of citizen science, experiments performed in a distributed way by non-specialists, tinkerers, and the scientifically curious. And now, building on the growing market for private space travel, citizen science is edging toward a new frontier: space.

How to get to space

Though the future of federal funding for American space travel is questionable, the space industry is currently experiencing incredible private sector growth. No fewer than twenty-three different vehicle designs capable of carrying passengers into space or low Earth orbit are currently in development or actively being tested. Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are the most visible of the contenders due to their recent successful test flights. Consequently, the opportunities for citizen scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to be part of humanity’s expansion into space are set to increase dramatically while at the same time becoming much more affordable. The workshop, held May 4-5, was brimming with talks explaining the ways in which citizen scientists could get involved in space research and exploration. In a presentation about the Lynx, a two-seat, reusable launch vehicle currently in development by XCOR, Khaki Rodway ran down a long list of scientific experiments that could fit into the 20 kg and 120 kg payloads of the suborbital spaceplane: everything from electronics testing for future technologies to be used on Earth or in space to remote imaging to help authorities fight forest fires more effectively. Citizen scientists can design experiments individually or as part of a team and have them sent up as payload in spaceplanes like the Lynx. XCOR, expecting to make much of its profits from payload use, has laid out guidelines for payload development on their website. Payload cost will vary according to company and amount of space required, but XCOR quoted the range of $5,000 to $500,000. If you want to go to space alongside your experiment be prepared to shell out at least $95,000. NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program acts as a middleman to help scientists find flights for their projects. Another option is to launch your own satellite. Small satellites called CubeSats are available to anyone, although academics, companies, and amateur satellite builders are currently the primary market. The present cost of sending a CubeSat into low-earth orbit ranges between $100,000-200,000 for construction and launch. However, several open-source components, including variations on arduino programming boards, alongside advancing smartphone technologies, are bringing down the cost for building and developing experiments. Finally, there’ll be competitions. Initiatives in the mold of the XPRIZE have had success in soliciting research ideas from individuals and companies, and space research is following suit. Citizens In Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, has announced a High-Altitude Astrobiology Challenge which will award cash prizes of up to $10,000 to ordinary citizens for the development of devices to collect microbes from space. The group has also said that they plan to sponsor 100 citizen science experiments to fly on suborbital missions in the Lynx spaceplane. The questions such research could answer are nearly limitless. For example, it’s thought that studying small aquatic invertebrates called waterbears (or tardigrades) might give us insight into human biology in space; synthetic biology could design useful microbes to transform waste into energy for long space missions; protein crystallization studies, sometimes easier in microgravity, have already led to pharmaceutical breakthroughs. From basic biology and chemistry to more instantly applicable technology, there is more unknown about space than known at the moment, and a lot of room for ordinary people to iterate upon ideas.

Small businesses join the action

In addition to science, attendees were there with an eye toward business. Entrepreneurs discussed opportunities like 3-D printing in space, mining of objects in the solar system, manufacturing on the moon and Mars, and space tourism. Jim Kerevala, CEO of Shackleton Energy, and Jason Dunn, the Chief Technologist for Made In Space, both made the case that small-scale experiments in sub-orbital or orbital payloads will be the driving force behind new business development in the fledgling sector of space services. For instance, the process of soldering, essential to electronics and metal work here on Earth, is not effective in microgravity. However, questions related to the soldering process can be tested easily on sub-orbital flights (and more cost-effectively than on the ISS). Anyone able to solve the problem of soldering in space and commercialize the solution stands to make a lot of money as more business moves off-planet. However, new space-related businesses do still face an uphill battle. Sentiment about who is qualified to explore space needs to change if funding is to find its way into the hands of space-entrepreneurs. Currently, space advocates and entrepreneurs are thought of as “early adopters” whose projects often produce looks of incredulity and giggles in conversations with the uninitiated. Persistent communication programs will be a huge part of making space science and exploration more mainstream and fundable.

States step in

Implicit in all the presentations was the need for access to space: more rockets and space planes run by more companies are required before space really becomes a democratic place. But, as NASA steps back from its role in exploration, several states see the potential financial revenues and are stepping in. California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, New York and Texas are all currently discussing or planning spaceports. Texas and Florida, in particular, are working to entice space-related companies to base enterprises in their states. It looks as though Texas might get both SpaceX and XCOR, but it is still unknown who will be the victor in the state race for space. As for the future vision of the space industry as a whole, that differs depending on who you talk to. Some see it as a place for industry or science, while others imagine that it will be populated by tourists. In either case, in the near future – within just a few years – trips into suborbital space will be a daily occurrence in many parts of the U.S. And the future of space will be a product of the combined efforts of everyone who labors to create it. (As Jim Kerevala of Shackleton Energy put it, “The supply chain doesn’t exist yet!”) The same way that ordinary people with extraordinary ideas have painted the current cultural and commercial landscape on the surface of the Earth, citizen scientists will be particularly important for the development of humanity’s expansion off of the planet. In conjunction with professional scientists, they will be among the first wave of explorers to shine a light on the darkness that surrounds us, and among the first experimenters to have a shot at testing the widgets upon which future space tourists will depend.

Dr. Kiki Sanford is a specialist in neuroscience and behavior. When not studying her toddler son, she tries to explain science and technology to anyone who will listen. She also hosts the weekly kickass science show This Week in Science, and harbors secret dreams of vacationing on the moon.

Image by BiterBig / Shutterstock

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