How Shooting for the Stars Helps Us Focus on the Ground
While our own planet has enough issues to tackle, it may seem strange that scientists around the world are hard at work trying to reach other planets. What is wrong with Earth? We respect the historical significance of the moon landing and its role in effectively ending the space race in many people’s minds. However, what role does space exploration play in the modern era? Aside from the value of furthering mankind’s knowledge of the universe and opportunities, our missions to explore space and other planets have led to a multitude of discoveries that aid us in our daily life back on Earth. For those of us who are not one of the 100,000 people claiming they are eager to leave the Earth, move to Mars, and never return, there is still value to be found in space exploration.
Innovation moves society forward, regardless of how it arises. Many great scientific discoveries have been made by accident. An example of this is the modern pacemaker invented by Wilson Greatbatch. Greatbatch intended to build a device that could record the sounds of the heart. However, an unintended change in the circuitry led to the device creating its own pulse. Pacemakers at the time were bulky and painful, making this new model a life changer for pacemaker patients. New technology can have unintentional and beneficial consequences, and technology created for the benefit of space research is no exception.
NASA recently released its 2019 edition of Spinoff, a collection of fifty innovations made for space research that have branched out and found applications in other fields. These areas include health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, energy and environment, information technology, and industrial productivity. Though NASA has been publishing Spinoff since 1976, the public has been getting new products originally designed for space-related research since the very first moon mission that launched the American space program to a place of global attention. The following are just some of the products featured in this year’s Spinoff.
A common issue since the inception of the Mars missions is determining how to bring back samples from Mars without contaminating the sample or the Earth. Concerns about Martian dust have prevented any mission from even attempting a return of Martian soil as no container can properly seal the sample. To help address this concern, scientists modified an existing form of Teflon to make it more flexible and work with the seal design. The added benefit of this material is it is perfectly safe for the human body and can be used to form strong medical sutures.
The modern tire pressure sensor was commercialized thanks to a similar development to detect flattening tires on space shuttles. The tire pressure sensors take advantage of piezoresistive technology which relates pressure, strain, and electricity. Pressure on the sensor causes strain. If the pressure drops, the strain changes, which produces electricity. From a consumer perspective, this is what causes the familiar car light indicating that our tires might be running low.
On manned space missions, it is important to consider how to efficiently use and filter water. The International Space Station utilizes heavy and short-lived systems to filter any water available. Aquaporin designed new filters that act similarly to kidneys in the way they filter water. One of their designs uses sugar water to filter urine into safe drinking water. Tests proved successful on the International Space Station, but the product has uses around the globe, filtering water in homes that have limited access to safe drinking water like in China and India.Moving forward, Aquaporin hopes to develop filters that will efficiently filter saltwater into drinking water, which could be of great use to people without access to fresh water.
Spacesuits also rely on proper filtration of air toxins to function properly and safely. Serionix has designed filters that not only work effectively, but change color to show when they need to be changed. Previous filter designs were changed on a scheduled basis, meaning some of them may have still been usable at their time of disposal. Many of the air toxins found in spacesuits are also those that cause unpleasant odors related to pets. Due to this realization, Serionix also sells home and car versions of these filters, which effectively eliminate pet odors and change color when it is time for them to be changed.
These are just a handful of applications NASA has chosen to feature in this year’s collection of useful innovations. Many companies work in conjunction with NASA to improve space research, and these companies are more than happy to commercialize their discoveries that have benefits for everyday use. The space industry can impact so many aspects of our everyday life because of the convenient products it has helped inspire. Since it seems we are going to be on this planet for a while, we can certainly appreciate the benefits of the technology designed to help other people explore new worlds.
Coleman, Daniel, et al. “Spinoff 2019.” NASA, 2019.