Spinoff technologies from space exploration

Often we hear cticism over the cost of accessing space and questions over whether it’s worth it to go to Mars, the Moon, Jupiter etc. It’s fair to question what governments spend their money on and expect some justification from agencies and politicians but these questions need to come from a place of understanding and awareness. The space industry produces a lot of technologies that have applications in many terrestrial fields, these are called spinoff technologies. Space is a hostile environment and the technologies developed to help humans and sensors and other electronics survive have had some impressive benefits for everyday use back on Earth. These benefits have included the aeronautics industry which has gained benefit from developments in aerodynamics and fuel efficient systems. Many other applications have had spinoff uses for new materials developed from the bags that cushioned the landings of Mars rovers through to the miniaturisation of sensors on those same rovers that have had a multitude of uses in scientific applications here.

Space exploration involves a lot of sensing and analysing of very weak signals in very noisy environments. This might be detecting just a few photons from a distant galaxy or very hard to “hear” gravitational wave from colliding neutron stars. All of these require technologies to pull the signal out from the noise so useful information can be used. This has also had the added benefit of developing sensors that listen for movement and other very quite sounds in audibly noises environments. This kind of technology has helped save people buried in rubble following the Nepal earthquake in April 2015. The technology listens for movement caused by breathing and heartbeats through a radar optimised for detecting these tiny movements. The particular technology used is similar to the algorithms that JPL devloped to monitor the orbits of spacecraft around Jupiter and Saturn, like for the Juno mission depicted in the featured image from NASA. The device is called FINDER, which stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, and can detect determine up to five seperate people in the area it’s focusing on. NASA and JPL helped to develop the technology based on signal processing work they have done for a range of sensors employed for space exploration. This knowledge was combined with the engineering learned from the miniaturisation of sensors to give a light weight and low power sensor that has already saved lives.

The FINDER instrument (Credit: NASA)

The European Space Agency and the organisations it partners with throughout Europe have also transferred significant advances in technology to the private sector that have created jobs and generated economic activity. In addition they have also assisted in the development of technologies that help with health care and monitor the environment. One company called Mirico in the United Kingdom has developed products that have benefited from the technology developed in ESA recent missions. Specifically Mirico’s products are used to examine gases, either environmentally or from patients and have been designed compact and low power. ESA uses twelve business incubation centres throughout Europe to transfer technology.

Silica aerogel was invented over 100 years ago but had a major downside being very brittle. NASA helped develop a version that was durable as they needed a light weight and durable insulation for the fuel lines of the Space Shuttle. Aspen Aerogels Inc was the company used by NASA for the production of aerogel blankets to protect the cryogenic fuel tank and pipes on various spacecraft launch systems. Michael Markesbery founded a company called Oros following on from an Astronaut Scholarship Foundation award for undergraduate study where he got exposure to the aerogel product and was put in contact with Aspen Arogels. His company went on to develop a jacket and other products based on the aerogel blankets that wrap spacecraft fuel tanks. They have continued to develop the aerogel blankets and now have a product called SolarCore which overcomes some of the earlier problems with using aerogel – basically it’s warped in a better outer layer.

Gold, despite being rather expensive, it very useful for insulation as it reflects infrared wavelengths really well and it doesn’t tarnish. This is one of the reasons the James Webb space telescope uses a lot of gold, both in the mirrors and around a refrigerant tube used to cool the Mid Infrared Instrument. To get stuff coated in gold, the metal is usually heated in a vacuum until becomes a gas and this then evenly spreads onto the surface being coated. Unfortunately it doesn’t stay shiny and it gets brittle so scientists needed to come with a method of keeping the gold’s high reflectivity and yet ensuring it’s durable enough to last. NASA went to a company called Epner that had developed a process for gold plating that would meet the requirements for the James Webb telescope. They had used the gold plating technique for a few decades and perfected it. It basically packs the gold atoms closer together to retain the reflectivity and get them tough and durable. This method of gold plating has a variety of uses outside of the space industry including for medical equipment and sensors, including thermometers.

The James Webb Space Telescope (Credit: NASA)

Though space exploration can seem very expensive on the surface, it has produced many many spinoffs of that have saved lives and improved the lives of many. We’ve looked at a tiny amount of the benefits here and there are many more, particular in sensors for agriculture, LED light development, remote sensing, aeronautics, project management, design technology and even cosmetics. NASA has a website here that is useful for finding out more about spinoff technologies.