Students Pushing Space Exploration to Its Outer Limits
It is time to push the reset button in opening up the space frontier.
That’s the view from some participants taking part in a 10-week intensive studies program at Singularity University, a school for technology leaders based at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif.
The program is titled "To Boldly Stay — Extending Humanity into the Solar System."
"The onrush of exponential technologies are reinventing how we get into space … and reinventing everything we do," said Peter Diamandis, co-founder and chairman of Singularity University. He’s also chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation.
"The students worked on what we called '10 to the 9th — plus' projects … how to positively impact a billion people in a decade. That was their metric of success," Diamandis said.
Singularity University draws its name from the book "The Singularity is Near" written by American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. The term singularity refers to the rapid and accelerating onslaught of sciences and technologies, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and genetics.
Kurzweil is co-founder of the Singularity University, underscoring his belief that the mind-warping growth in a range of technologies "allows us to solve problems that seem unsolvable."
Students from 35 nations attended the 10-week program, delving into off-Earth exploration, as well as the worldly woes of sustainable water assets, food for cities, home energy use and "upcycle" — waste reduction and reprocessing into useful products.
"The application of exponential thinking to the grand challenge of space exploration and settlement was thrilling to watch unfold this summer," said Bob Richards, a founding trustee of Singularity University.
Chris Lewicki, team leader of the Singularity University space project, is also a space engineer with several NASA Mars missions under his belt.
Lewicki told SPACE.com that the university's space team explored a broad expanse of topics to enable humans to sustainably expand into the solar system. The team then produced an Exponential Technology Impact Report that identified six opportunities to examine in more detail:
- Escape Dynamics: a fully reusable space launch system to defeat the fundamental limiting factor of access to space.
- SWARM: the possibility of a shared cloud of nanosatellites in low-Earth orbit to enable space-based services with minimal infrastructure.
- Made in Space: explores building spacecraft, tools and other infrastructure in space using 3-D printing technologies.
- SpaceBio Labs: investigates providing cheap and easy access to highly functional biological experiments in space on automated platforms to enable long-duration experiments.
- Biologically Enhanced Space Technology: envisions the use of biological materials and biology-inspired space structures in space exploration.
- AI Labs: imagines the application of general artificial intelligence to increasingly autonomous remotely operated robots and synthetic biology to help create survivable environments, overcome disease and aging, and extend human presence in space.
"Only a few of the students had any background or exposure to space exploration," Lewicki said. "This was an asset, as it allowed them to explore the grand challenges without any preconceived ideas of potential solutions."
A number of the Singularity University students chose the space project, as it was their only opportunity to participate in space exploration research, Lewicki added. "Many of the teams are planning to turn their summer projects into active businesses."
SU corporate founders include Autodesk, Google and ePlanet Ventures, as well as the Kauffman Foundation, a promoter of entrepreneurship fueled by technological innovation.
Spare parts on the fly
The interdisciplinary aspect and interactions between fast-moving technologies was underscored by university faculty head Dan Barry — a veteran shuttle astronaut with three trips to space under his helmet.
Barry said the time is near for making it possible for anyone to buy a ticket to go to space.
Yet one of the biggest issues with living in space, Barry said, is what to do when things break.
The space team appraised the use of 3-D printers, making it possible to create spare parts on the fly, Barry said. He singled out the International Space Station as having a surprisingly high percentage of its mass in just spare parts.
"So suppose you were able to make the parts that you wanted in space, when you needed them," Barry said. "You don’t wait three months for them to show up."
The implications for 3-D printing in space could mean reducing the tons of hardware dispatched on, say a mission to Mars.
Producing made-on-Mars gear would allow exploration missions to use less powerful boosters and could transform the entire mission scenario in terms of cost, time and effort to get to the Red Planet, Barry observed.
"It can be the difference between a Mars mission that gets funded and goes … versus one that’s too expensive," he said.
Beamed power launch
SU students also investigated how to reinvent the ability to hurl humans into space.
Looking at the boosters of today, "it’s the same technology that old Chinese rockets had," Diamandis pointed out, a tube in which you burn something and exhaust gasses come out the other end.
SU students this summer investigated beamed power launch, Diamandis said. Using ground-based solid-state laser or phased-array microwave energy sources, a craft’s onboard working fluid, like hydrogen, would be heated to propel it spaceward.
That system has the potential to be on the order of 50 to 100 times more efficient than traditional launch vehicles, with a much higher payload fraction and much higher specific impulse rate, Diamandis explained. "This is a system that the technologies exist today to implement that," he said, and "will change how we get into space in the next 10 to20 years."
Kurzweil: transcend our limitations
In a Sept. 13 internet briefing, Kurzweil admitted he wasn’t a space cadet, but did spotlight his outlook for moving off the planet.
"I’d say the primary reason right now is not that we better get off the planet because we're running out of resources … we have plenty of resources here on Earth, for the time being," Kurzweil emphasized. That being said, moving settlements off Earth is more a prospect toward the end of the century, he noted, a time "when we might really have to for strategic reasons."
Kurzweil said that the reason to go into space "is because that's the nature of being human … to transcend our limitations of being on one planet."
Getting machinery and people into space is "an inspiring, grand challenge which expands our knowledge of science and stimulates our imagination and, ultimately, will be strategically important to our planet," Kurzweil said.
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Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.
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