Sunday, June 28, 2015

Space Bioengineering

Space is a new environment. A clean slate. As far as we know devoid of even simple life. A new environment where living creatures have never prospered requires new creatures that have never existed. While machines are being developed to take people and other machines into space, organisms need to be developed to allow us to stay there and build an economy and society.

DARPA has already begun exploring the possibilities of genetically modified  or synthetically created organisms with which to terraform Mars. However the creation of of genetically modified animals has any number of other applications. Plants with increased oxygen producing ability. Bacteria for breaking down asteroids. Modified food producing organisms for colonies. Organisms that can convert human waste into bioluminescent light instead of using electricity. And even bacteria which could solve health hazards to humans caused by radiation or low gravity.

The reason genetic engineering has not been widely accepted and experiences great resistance on Earth is the fact that genetic engineering is considered unnatural. To introduce a man-made plant or organism into the Earth ecosystem is generally considered dangerous due to the side-effects that may arise. An example could be that weeds can adopt a genetically engineered resistance to common herbicides. Or that genetically modified food has detrimental health affects.

These potential problems with genetically engineered organisms is due to their foreignness to the normal ecosystem. Something which evolves 200 years in one or two affects its competition and consumers in ways not anticipated. It is the reaction of the environment which causes opposition to genetic modification not the modified species themselves.

Another argument to genetic modification has been the ethical question of if humans should exercise such powers. This is a question that cannot be answered in this essay. Though, as a guess, this question is still based on the protection of the natural environment.

In space there is no natural environment. It is a microwaved wasteland with no biology. For this reason many of the arguments for using biologically or synthetically engineered organisms fall apart. There is not an ecosystem to ruin with the introduction of a designed-for-space organism.

However, there will still be resistance to the use of such organisms. This something which space bio-engineering firms will have to be prepared for. Just as deserts and forests are preserved from irrigation or clearing to preserve their natural beauty, so to may barren planets be defended from terraformation. This is a legal question which will have to be addressed in future as such applications as terraformation go from theory to fact.

Also, while at the moment introduction of genetically modified organisms may be acceptable in space the industry must be careful in future to ensure that created ecosystems are kept clear of dangerous or invasive species.

From a business perspective bioengineering could be comparable to any other human space product in market size, perhaps even larger as terraformation becomes a possibility. But on the smaller scale humans, being natural creatures, require natural solutions to space survival. A typical technological carbon scrubber on a space station in not as effective or efficient as a common plant. But rare is the plant that collects high volumes of CO2 and can flourish in the low temperatures of Mars.

Not only are new organisms needed for space, they are required. The new environments are so foreign to anything that exists on Earth that finding an existing species to perform some task may be nearly impossible. (excluding bacteria that can survive in space while in hibernation) Selective breeding and cross breeding would be far to slow. Just as one has to leap a hundred miles straight up to reach space so must organic life "leap" in survival skills and production to survive in space. Genetic engineering is the only method available to make that leap.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Asteroid Mining Infographic

Here is an infographic on asteroid mining from

Planetary Resources' announcement of their intention to mine the asteroids rekindles dreams of the early Space Age.
Source: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

Space to Earth Delivery

Currently most of the effort in the space industry is toward getting things into space. However, there will come a time when we will be trying to bring more stuff down from space. Materials mined from asteroids, completed manufactured goods, finished experiments, and other products that were mined, grown, or made in space will require a means to bring them back down.

Intuitive Machines' TRV (Terrestrial Return Vehicle)
NASA has already begun addressing this problem. Intuitive Machines' Terrestrial Return Vehicle is being created and is intended to begin testing on the ISS in 2016. The purpose of the vehicle will be to provide a quick means to deliver time sensitive experiments safely back to Earth where further analysis can take place which can't occur on the space station. The design is expected to be launched from the station and then maneuver to and land at the nearest spaceport.

Delivery from space is a very viable business opportunity. Especially since commercial space stations, primarily from Bigelow Aerospace, are only a maximum of 5-10 years away. While NASA is taking the approach of creating a special vehicle for the task that is not the only method or business model.

A delivery company from space could begin as simply an organizer. Buying space on returning capsules for materials from other space stations. This would actually change the business dynamic of commercial launches, who's operation generally relies on only one ticket, round-trip or one way, to one customer. As traffic increases one organization can purchase the trip up but then someone else can reserve the trip down.

The reason NASA and Intuitive Machines are creating a single miniature craft for the task of delivery from orbit is schedule flexibility. Renting space on a capsule is fettered with the schedule of the capsule launch. But cargo, particularly experiments, may have expiration dates. The TRV ensures rapid delivery whenever needed. Just like Amazon, same-day delivery is the holy grail.

So what is required for a technology that drops things from orbit on command and lands them safely? This is dependent on the cargo. The TRV is a smal craft for deliverying small experiments. The small size allows for multiple craft to be delivered to the ISS in a single launch. The TRV is also outfitted with a maneuvering system. It is basically a complete small spaceship.

TRV being launched from the ISS
The complete spaceship design for the TRV is acceptable for the current state of the art and the amount of cargo transported. But as time passes completely disposable spaceships may be too expensive. An alternate method could be something along the lines of a space gun which launches small capsules of goods which are delivered from locations in orbit. This would eliminate the need for internal propulsion of the capsules and may simplify capsule design from lifting body to the more common tear-drop shape. Though such a system would not be required for several decades. Until inter-orbit transportation and exchange is common. Basically the "space gun" would be the post office and there would be mailmen going around orbit picking up "packages" and delivering them to the "space gun."

Concept for blanket used in asteroid retrieval in space
Going even a step further and considering asteroid mining. At some point the materials within those rocks will have to be delivered to Earth if they are to have any value. The trouble is that most asteroids burn up as they enter our atmosphere. A method will have to be devised for delivering these rocks safely to the surface so their contents can be collected and sold. Something along the lines of an ablative blanket could be created which protects the asteroids from the heat of reentry. (similar to how asteroid miners plan to protect water rocks from the sun's heat) Or perhaps large skeletal landers could be created which have a heat shield and a parachute. These landers could be filled with mined material or raw asteroids and landed, then, perhaps, even reused.

While all the focus as been on getting into space the need to send stuff back is growing everyday. The ISS needs to return experiments. Planetary Resources may need to land rocks. Private space stations may need to return manufactured goods. There may even be a need to send parts down to earth to be repaired and returned at the next launch of a capsule.

In order to develop an economy in space a two-way exchange between Earth and space must be set-up. Getting up there is great, but it matters little to the world unless something comes back.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Invasive Species in Space

Tardigrades or "water bears" can survive the extremes of space
From time to time one will hear of something called “invasive species.” Invasive species are organisms which are introduced to an area where they have no competition and thus begin to roust the native species and wreak havoc with the ecosystem. Such species include numerous noxious weeds, fish such as carp, and animals like pet pythons.

Nearly all of these invasive species were introduced by human interaction. A seed stuck to a boat, a pet released into a swamp, etc. All of these species which began as only one or two loose seeds have become major problems on our planet and within many countries as they can destroy what makes a river, lake, land desirable in a particular area.

It is too late now to point this out as all the harm has been and is being done now. However there is no reason to allow it to continue, at least for some time.

It has been said many times that humans are on the cusp of an exodus to space. The price of launches is expected to decrease dramatically in the coming decades so that a trip into the void could be within the range of vacation expenses. There are also plans to begin colonizing Mars. But will the mistakes of old be overlooked? Will we carry invasive or undesirable species with us as we move into space?

The Curiosity Rover being assembled in a clean room
NASA and other space agencies have long worked to ensure that biocontamination does not occur between its craft and the heavenly bodies they explore. And yet even with all the scrubbing, baking and sanitizing that is performed on craft such as rovers, they have  been found to still harbor microbes which could colonize the Red Planet before humans. If highly polished equipment is still carrying bacteria what is expected to occur when people are throwing suitcases into the cargo hold of a spaceship for a vacation? Mosquitoes might be released into what could have been an Eden.
The private space industry is moving quickly to develop technologies for transportation. But as the transit becomes more viable the industry must remember to perform the annoying housecleaning tasks and consider them before history is simply repeated. Invasive species are a large problem on Earth where they have little competition, but they could be devastating to a space mission if resilient bacteria  were introduced to a colony’s single water supply where there is no competition. Not to mention the potential extraterrestrial conservation issues such an outbreak might incur.

While a cleaning bureaucracy does not need to be created to hinder the industry it is something that should be developed before it is needed. Because when a biological invasion occurs it will appear as gross negligence on the part of the industry. From that will spawn a truly hindering organization.
The industry must work on problems such as invasive species and others which are all preventable. This will show responsibility and due diligence which will give the industry leeway when other unforeseeable problems occur.

As always, this potential cleaning problem opens an opportunity for space entrepreneurs. Currently space rovers are not being cleaned completely. But they are being cleaned as well as they can be. This means that new methods of scrubbing spacecraft need to be developed as well as means of containing microbes and large potential invasive species during manned flights.

Such a business could begin life performing basic cleaning on spacecraft going into orbit. Basically a prepper for low risk launches. Then as more rovers are deployed and more people move into space launch companies could solicit the services of such a company to screen passengers and cargo for potential biohazards and invasive species. Some launch companies may elect to do this themselves but until launch reliability is the same as an airplane launch companies will likely not wish to hold the liability for a potential infestation of a space station. A company dedicated to the screening and cleaning of cargo and people could develop the methods and the technologies to keep invasive and dangerous species out of pure areas.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Weeds, reptiles, germs, fish and many other kinds of creatures have repeatedly been carried into areas where they can wreak havoc and destroy something that was devoid of such organisms. In space, humans have a completely clean slate. We can have any kind of flora or fauna we want. But there must be means of keeping what shouldn’t go to space from going to space. A few mosquitoes would completely ruin a trip to a space station.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Space Robots as Heroes

The space programs of the past and the space industry of the future is subject to public opinion and support. This was true of the moon shots and it is true of each of Apple’s unveilings. If people don’t care then success is substantially more difficult.

Space Robot Justin
Robots are a great way to explore space. They are cheaper, safer, and faster than humans.  And, as artificial intelligence increases they are becoming as capable as a person. So why risk a life if the job can be done by a machine?

Public relations. A machine does not elicit a response from people that makes them stand and root for it. Curiosity landed and continues to provide amazing images and great information but no one outside of the space community cares. Voyager is now in interstellar space, no one cares. Opportunity  has survived on the red planet for 11 years , no one cares. Sending people to Mars? Great press, though potentially a fraud.

Now certainly humans do need to be in space. Space is there for us, not the machines. But machines are able to blaze trails and provide information in far more effective ways than an astronaut with a wind gauge can. But as entrepreneurs in the space robot business get started how do they work to gain the public support for a Mars rover that is remotely similar to an astronaut?
Star Wars R-Series Robots
For this to occur engineers must become showmen. Think of R2-D2, this space robot is loved by millions even over its anthropomorphic partner because R2 is lovable and has a personality. He is just a can that beeps but everyone connects with him. Space robots must become “hims” instead of “its.”

So when conducting a scientific or exploratory mission how does one make a “him?” Let’s look at another automated space machine that has broken the mold and won the hearts of even average folk, the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has gained value as much more than a scientific instrument. This is because it acts as an eye to the universe. It has given the world images of the universe in amazing color. It has a name that people can remember. And it has a story which people relate to. It started broken, was fixed, was almost scrapped, but is still going. Hubble is the little engine that could, and it has survived partially through public support.

Robots and probes must become celebrities in order to have a level of public praise similar to an astronaut. The robot needs to have life on display. It needs to have a story that people can tell. The hurtles that that little circuit board overcame. The more that the machine can be personified the better.

Companies in the space robot industry which are just starting out and need to get through a crowdfunding campaign or have investors hear about them before they walk in the door, need to make their robot a person. Give it a twitter account, and Instagram Maybe spend some weight on a couple of eyeballs. Have the people building take a personable selfie with it.

A Space robots shouldn’t be scientific instruments but a friend or adventurer. The humans around the robot can give the robot the life and personality that it needs, but that has to be something that is considered when building it and sending it on its way.

For More information about the reaction of humans to some robots see below:
An Ethological and Emotional Basis for Human-Robot Interaction