Space exploration and commercial applications have always been inextricably linked. NASA’s innovations have found their way into our everyday technology in health and medicine, public safety, transportation, consumer goods, environmental and agricultural resources, computer technology and industrial productivity.
Something as elementary as NASA’s drones, which are destined for Mars in 2020 to scout terrain for a rover, have potent potential for us on Earth. These small helicopter scouts will operate in the Martian atmosphere, which is only one percent of the density of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. To accomplish this feat, NASA will have to employ ultra-efficient means of lift, such as enlarging the blades, spinning them faster, or employing counter-rotating propellers. Whatever their innovative design, if their scout’s propellers efficiently provide lift in such a rarified atmosphere as that of Mars, might they not have application for our wind turbines, generating electricity at lower wind speeds and allowing wind turbines to be built in locations with lesser winds?
With the explosion of present-day technologies, discoveries will find their way into space. This will be even more true for long-term space habitats, which will require highly-efficient recycling, most critically that of water. A nascent, 21st century technology, which may be of help, is that of nanotechnology. This promising field has already garnered a line item in the President’s FY 2015 Budget of nearly $1.5 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which includes an estimated $36 million for nano-manufacturing.
An example of a nanotechnology application was recently reported on the BBC. A book, composed of pages that could be torn out and used as water filters, has proved effective in its first field trials. The book was developed over years by Dr. Teri Dankovich, a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. What was interesting, as far as this author was concerned, is that the paper was embedded with nanoparticles of silver or copper to kill bacteria in the water as it passed through the filter. It was reported that during the trial on water sources of South Africa, Ghana and Bangladesh, the paper successfully killed more than 99 percent of the bacteria. Ions from the nanoparticles were absorbed by the microbes, to their detriment.
It is my thought that nanotechnology will play a significant role in our future, and whether the innovation is created first for a process planetside or for space, it will inevitably be employed in the other environment.
Self-sufficient space habitats will also require new recycling methods of inorganic materials. It will be too expensive to ship trash back to Earth. Plastics, a category of petrochemical products, are quite durable and slow to degrade, but there are examples of micro-organisms accelerating the degradation processes. Imagine the value of developing bio-engineered bacterium, fungi, yeasts, algae, and lichens to completely recycle plastics. It would be a huge boon for space habitation if scientists could perfect processes which efficiently degraded plastics into environmentally-friendly compounds. Then we could employ the innovations to rid the Earth of the billions of tons of discarded plastics, which have inundated our planet’s soils, waterways, and oceans.
Space exploration drives the imagination of the public, which helps fuel government decision makers to fund space programs. Our exploration of space may be nascent, but as commercial entities join governments and private organizations in the push into space, the rate of technological innovation will multiply and so will the return for us on Earth, economically and environmentally.
S.H. Jucha has had an extensive career as a senior manager in the technical education and software development industries, with degrees in Biology and Broadcast Communications. He has been driven by an innate interest in computers since his initial adoption of an IBM PC in 1981. Jucha’s new novels, The Silver Ships and Libre, are now part of a planned five-book series and are available on Amazon in several formats.