How technology created for use in space has benefited life on earth

Technologies developed for use in lunar and planetary exploration have benefited life on earth, and the trend is set to increase, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 5:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 6:39am

What has space exploration ever done for us? In the wake of China's recent moon mission - and with US space agency Nasa talking about landing a man on an asteroid in the 2020s, and on Mars in the 2030s - taxpayers are inevitably asking, is it worth the money?

We're always being told that space exploration benefits everyone, but there's a popular feeling that it's largely about national prestige and military technology. The Chang'e 3 lunar lander is symbolic of a rising China, undoubtedly, but it's also expected to kick-start the development of new communications technologies.

That might seem vague, but even a quick glance at your smartphone will reveal a glaring example of how research and development for space missions has helped shape our modern digital world.

In fact, our daily lives are stuffed full of space spin-offs. See that tiny camera in your smartphone? It comes from Mars. Now used in billions of cameras, smartphones, webcams and D-SLR cameras, the complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor active-pixel sensor (CMOS-APS) "camera-on-a-chip" was invented in the 1990s by Professor Eric Fossum, now of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth in southwestern England - and a former engineer at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The CMOS-APS sensor, which consumes 100 times less power than previous digital camera chips (and can therefore run off a smartphone battery) also has a pixel architecture hard enough to withstand the radiation encountered during long journeys through space.

It was invented for Nasa's Mars rovers, and though the actual cameras sent to the red planet only managed one megapixel, hundreds of images were stitched together to create the very first high-resolution vistas of the red planet.

Even Curiosity - now on the surface of Mars - only uses a two-megapixel camera, such is the bandwidth available when sending images back to earth.

The technology was licensed by California-based company Photobit in 1995, which sold its billionth sensor in 2008. But that is not the only company to profit from space.

Using that same idea of stitching together one-megapixel images to create huge and highly detailed panoramic photographs, US company MLBAM has developed a commercial version of the GigaPan tripod used by Mars rovers to take panoramic images of crowds at Major League Baseball stadiums.

Crowd members visiting the's TagOramic website can find their face within the 96-megapixel image. It's the "I was there" moment writ large.

Yet another photographic spin-off of Nasa's obsession with shrinking and toughening-up tech comes from the Hubble Space Telescope, which has bequeathed us more than just stunning images.

Launched in 1990, its photographs are down to the creation of Nasa's super-sensitive charge-coupled devices that digitise light into data, but that same technology has been licensed by Lorad Corporation for the fight against breast cancer. It's developed breast imaging machines for hospitals that do away with the need for a tissue sample.

This non-surgical breast biopsy technique is sparing millions of women pain, scars and radiation exposure.

Other space technologies also finding life-saving uses back on earth include SunDanzer Refrigeration's solar-powered fridges, which are used by the likes of Unicef, African Steps and Save The Children to take vaccine programmes to the 1.2 billion people in off-grid areas of the world.

It was invented at Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in the 1970s. On a much larger scale is the International Search and Rescue Satellite Tracking system, which is based on the Cospas-Sarsat system first established in 1979 by the US, France, Canada and the Soviet Union - and recently upgraded.

There are now a million Cospas-Sarsat distress beacons on vehicles and in locations worldwide in a system that's now operated by 41 countries; an estimated 32,000 mariners, pilots and explorers have been saved by Cospas-Sarsat.

Another life-saving use for space research is in the development of super-steady robotic arms capable of microsurgery.

Based on space robots created for both the Space Shuttle programme and the International Space Station, NeuroArm is the first surgical robot that can work inside an MRI scanner, making it useful for removing brain tumours.

Created by neurosurgeon Dr Garnette Sutherland at Canada's University of Calgary, it can work at an accuracy level of the width of a human hair.

Robotics is probably one of Nasa's more well-known areas, and it's a subject that's always on the move. NeuroArm is the basis of an upcoming even more accurate microsurgical robot Symbis, while Nasa has on board the ISS the latest version of Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot torso that now has legs.

"He" can now help astronauts aboard the ISS using both of his hands, while those new legs act as anchors - always useful in zero gravity.

But it's a third spin-off robot that has the hardest job. Using lightweight yet strong frame technology developed for a prototype Martian rover named Rocky-7, which acted as a test bed for Nasa's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the remotely controlled iRobot PackBot Tactical Mobile Robot is most at home in war zones.

Developed for military use by iRobot - a company better known for its robot vacuum cleaners for homes - and fitted with a manoeuvrable arm, real-time cameras and microphones, a PackBot has been used to get inside the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. Its day job, however, is in bomb disposal.

Another crisis-avoidance use of space technology is a system for fighting bush fires. It's based on recent work by the German aerospace centre and space agency DLR while working on one of the most audacious technical feats in space ever attempted.

High-resolution optical sensors were designed for the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe to let it analyse the tail of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet that it will intercept later this year (scientists have compared the attempt to landing on a speeding bullet) before hitching a ride with it around the sun.

Already those optical sensors have been used to create an extremely sensitive fire detection system called FireWatch by detecting the presence of smoke during both day and night, and in any weather.

There are plenty more rather humdrum spin-offs from space, too. Everyday objects made from space tech include rust-resistant taps and fittings, wall insulation and many cosmetics, while space suit development led to UV-blocking sunglasses, scratch-resistant coatings on all kinds of lenses, shock-absorbing footwear and even cycle helmets.

Even baby food and the concept of freeze-dried food come from research done for space missions.

Food production is the subject of one of the newest spin-offs - AgriHouse's leaf sensor technology. It is part of a "growing food in space" project by the University of Colorado in Boulder and BioServe Space Technologies to tell a plant's water content by measuring the rigidity of its leaves.

AgriHouse's sensor is placed on a leaf. It then takes measurements of its rigidity using electrical pulses. But the implementation is the fun bit: when the plant is thirsty, it sends the farmer a text message.

Spin-offs work both ways, too. Next up is a reversal of the trend; Nasa and Made in Space will soon send a 3-D printer to the ISS to see how it behaves in zero gravity. It's a step towards the dream of developing in-space manufacturing; the ability to forge products and tools from materials already in space is likely to be the innovation that will allow man to properly probe deep space.