Technology transfer – where know-how, technologies and facilities developed for one purpose are used in a totally different one – has always been at the heart of space research and exploration. ‘Space spin-off’ is a term now widely used to describe the ever-increasing number of products and services being put to good use by citizens in Europe and around the world.
|Image © Peter Gutierrez|
High stakes in space
In space, failure of even the smallest technical component can have disastrous consequences. To date, more than 20 astronauts and cosmonauts have lost their lives on space missions, true heroes in the human quest to understand and exploit space. From the very first journeys into space by Russian and American pioneers in the 1950s and 60s, scientists and engineers have had to contend with the dreadful potential consequences of failure in terms of human lives.
Unreliable systems can also cause loss of scientific data or complete mission failure, not to mention the loss of huge sums of money. The financial resources needed to launch craft into space must not be overlooked as a very earthly constraint – underscored by NASA’s recent loss of the Genesis space capsule and European scientists’ failure to make contact with the Beagle probe on Mars in 2003.
Thus, reliability has been and continues to be the key requirement for every piece of equipment and every space system. But reliable means tried and tested. That is why those early space engineering pioneers used technologies that were themselves spin-offs, developed and tested previously and over time in the military and weapons industries.
High risk – high investment
In economic, scientific and human terms, then, the stakes in space are indeed high. Knowing the risks, today’s space scientists and engineers invest a great amount of energy in continuing to perfect every single technology and system used on a given space mission.
It is these technologies and systems that make their way into the lives of ordinary and often unsuspecting citizens. In fact, space technologies are now critical in catering to modern domestic and industrial needs.
Space spin-off technologies are used to create safer mobile phones, to monitoring the environment for climate change or pending natural hazards. They include microwave technologies, myriad medical, physical, chemical and biological tests, brain cancer treatments and techniques for diagnosing osteoporosis. Space spin-off technologies are used in the production of LEDs, smoke detectors, helmet padding, Teflon frying pans, polarised sunglasses and in digital imaging. The list goes on.
In all of these cases, an initial investment in innovative and visionary space engineering has paid off in both economic and human terms back here on Earth.
Facts and figures
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there have been more than 150 000 successful transfers of space technologies to Earth-bound applications over the past ten years, creating or saving more than 2 500 jobs, and leading to the creation of some 20 new companies. Importantly, a significant number of projects under the ESA Technology Transfer Programme benefit directly from EU resources.
The EU has also consistently funded technology transfer through its RTD Framework Programmes. Its aim is to improve the economic and social impact of research and development activities, particularly those which come under the scope of the Framework Programme. This means improving the dissemination and the exploitation of research results as well as the transfer and distribution of technologies from different sources, including space research, taking into account the needs of the consumers and the users.
Case study: the ‘SPACE2TEX’ project
Funded under the EU’s INNOVATION-SME programme, the SPACE2TEX project is aimed at developing a high-efficiency and cost-effective waste treatment system, based on advanced textile technologies developed for space life support systems.
Partners say membrane-bioreactors (MBRs) used for 100% water recycling in space can be applied to water purification on the ground, reducing treatment plant maintenance and running costs by 70%, while increasing sludge recovery and enabling savings in terms of water, water treatment costs and energy.
According to project coordinator Deborah Santus of the European Apparel and Textile Organisation (Euratex), the project has now entered its implementation phase. Speaking in October 2004, she said, “The MBR-based ‘SPACE2TEX Pilot’ is now being installed at an Italian water treatment facility, where it will undergo six months of real-scale testing, demonstration and validation. This will also include training for operators. The system will then be transferred to a facility in the Czech Republic towards the end of March 2005 for similar testing.”
Project partners are also developing a design tool to allow the production of SPACE2TEX materials at textile plants with different layouts and processing parameters. This tool, they say, will also help in determining the most appropriate specifications for a given modular water treatment plant.
Case study: space suits for babies
Cot death – or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – is an inexplicable condition affecting a small percentage of seemingly healthy babies. In the USA, for example, around 2 500 babies under the age of one die each year from deaths attributable to SIDS.
The Mamagoose pyjama suit features a built-in cot death monitor and baby guarding system. It is being developed by the Belgian company Verhaert Design & Development in collaboration with ESA, the German Space Agency and Free University Brussels (ULB). The pyjamas draw on technologies used in two space applications: one system, which records and analyses biometric (body movement) data, and another created to monitor astronauts’ breathing.
Although originally developed for limited use in hospitals and research laboratories, Mamagoose is now being developed as a consumer good, aimed at helping parents guard their precious family members. Verhaert’s marketing manager Dany Robberecht says work is in progress on converting this high-end piece of technology into an affordable product that will be easy to use in people’s homes.
“It was originally a tool spun off from a space technology which we developed and then reoriented towards monitoring the vital functions of babies and for other sleep-related research in a laboratory setting,” he explains. “After several years of comparative testing and adaptations, the aim now is to make it suitable for home use.”
For this, the company is still working closely with its partners and, according to Robberecht, their baby guard system could be on the market in the not-too-distant future. “Baby phones and similar devices already let parents know their child is awake. Our technology will put their minds at ease that the baby is breathing normally.”
Industry: space and mining technologies
Space spin-offs have found their way into heavy and dangerous industrial sectors such as underground mining. Advanced space technologies adapted for the mining and minerals industry have revolutionised how work is carried out in this ancient field.
For example, ground penetration radar developed for space exploration has successfully been used in Canada to detect cracks in mine walls and roofs, helping to prevent the collapse of mine drifts. New drilling devices and techniques developed for recent space missions are also likely to be seen soon in terrestrial mining operations.
Pierre Brisson, head of ESA’s Technology Transfer and Promotion Office says there are many ways that space know-how can help back on and, indeed, in the Earth. Speaking at a workshop held last year, he said, “Mining operations and robotics are extremely fertile fields for space technology. Transferred robotics control technologies have been a key factor in improving the productivity and safety of mining operations.”
The aforementioned workshop was one in a series of recent initiatives aimed at encouraging the crossover of technologies between the space and mining industries. By encouraging cross-sector exchange, organisers hope to increase the uptake of state-of-the-art space technologies among strategic Earth-based industries.
Bringing space to the people
One of the European Commission’s remits is to support space-related research and to promote better information sharing among the many stakeholders involved, whether they are industrial manufacturers, research centres, SMEs or just average citizens interested in what space and space technologies have to offer.
Space in Europe has entered a new phase, according to EU officials. It has transformed itself from a research-oriented to an end-use oriented sector, enabling the EU to tackle critical social and political issues. Meanwhile, in the wake of the White Paper on European Space Policy, Europe has increasingly been seen as a key space player at the global level.
To mark this transition, the European Commission, along with the European Space Agency, is hosting ‘Earth & Space Week’ from 12-20 February 2005, recognising the growing significance of space in everyday living – as an incubator of new ideas, technologies and sometimes gadgets that make European lives healthier, safer and more comfortable than ever before.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” – Arthur C. Clarke.
Co-operation is the way
Establishing deeper and long-lasting ties with past, present and future collaborators is one way to ensure an ongoing stream not only of successful space missions but also of commercially successful and socially beneficial space spin-offs.
International co-operation has been a major force behind the emergence of space as a key political and economic sector. Europeans have made huge strides towards greater collaborative efforts within the Union and with their neighbours in Russia and further afield. For example, in 2004, a groundbreaking agreement to launch Soyuz rockets from the European spaceport in Kourou , French Guyana, paved the way for long-term access to space. At the signing of this agreement, ESA’s Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain commented, “In 2006, when Soyuz lifts off from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, we will have reached, with our Russian partners, another important milestone for Europe in space.”
Much of the EU’s ambitious space programme rests on its ties with ESA – its 50-50 partnership with the space agency in the GALILEO scheme is a case in point. In this context, the Union is moving towards further tightening its relationship with the ESA, which will have an impact not only on European activities in space but also on the many technologies and systems which we may or may not recognise as having been born in space.
In line with their shared emphasis on international co-operation in space, the European Commission and ESA are hosting an international conference called ‘Winning through co-operation: sharing the benefits of space’ on 17-18 February 2005, in Brussels, within the framework of Earth & Space Week. The Commission plans to present, at that conference, an outline of the future European Space Programme.