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Space technology beams down to Earth


Space technology beams down to Earth

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What impact do space missions have on our day-to-day life here on Earth?

In November 2014, millions of people watched the Rosetta probe successfully land the Philae lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

It marked a giant leap forward for space exploration. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Technology Transfer Programme office hopes the mission will facilitate the use of space technology and know-how for non-space uses.

This technology has been 'translated' for use across a wide range of daily activities.

It has been applied for use in disease diagnoses, bedbug detection, a new generation of submarines, and much more.

The Ptolemy instrument on Rosetta uses a gas analyser designed to ‘smell’ the comet and analyse samples. And here on Earth, Oxford Micro Medical has provided a medical interface of that technology.

Frank Salzgeber is the head of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme office. He explained how instruments have been adapted for use in medical diagnoses.

“What the company has done now, in a spin-off in 2011, they started to build a small device which can detect bacterias, which are normally causing stomach injuries and infections, which lead to cancer”, he said.

This same instrument aboard the Philae Lander has been used to successfully diagnose tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa. To do this, it detects chemicals associated with the disease.

Another application is the detection and tracking of bugs, such as bedbugs.

“Another interesting technology in the food sector is also based on the mass spectrometer”, Salzgeber explained, adding: “A company, called Insect, is a spin-off company which is also supported in our Incubation Centre in the United Kingdom. They have used this technology to look for the chemical footprints of bugs and to detect bugs where you do not want to have bugs. So, in your hotel room, but also in food production and storage, where you really have to see where there are neighbours that you don’t really want to have in your food storage.”

The transfer of space technologies is included in the ESA space programmes from the very beginning in order to maximise investment and the impact on our life.

“With a lot of research organisations, really, we foster and educate them to think about the dual use of space and non space, right at the beginning. Especially when you have a lifetime of a project of 10 years, the spin-off has to drop out right away. And this we have seen especially in Rosetta”, Salzgeber said.

Technology transfer strengthens European industry by identifying new business opportunities for providers of space technology and systems. This is the case for Cedrat Technologies, a high tech SME based in the French Innovation Valley, close to Grenoble.

Their MIDAS dust analysing instrument is already aboard the Rosetta probe. And the French firm has transferred its space knowledge to other applications, such as a device used during heart surgery.

Cedrat Technology Business Engineer François Barillot enlarged on the uses of the device.

“We provided a “stabilisation device” which enables us to control vibrations. When a surgeon performs open-heart surgery, the heart trembles inside the rib cage; usually what they do is to stop the heart, which is relatively risky. What this device does is control the heart vibrations, to reduce tremors and allow the surgeon to work in acceptable conditions while the heart is still beating”, he explained.

The same concept is being tested elsewhere, even on sports fields. Stability is key when you are skiing at high speeds, for example. On the snow, as in space, this device allows people to avoid dangerous vibrations.

“We have transferred this technology to be able to control the vibrations of a ski”, said Barillot. “And in this case it was a ski designed for speed. We were able to increase or decrease the trembling, to eventually prevent the ski from vibrating.”

From the early days of space exploration, the missions have always been useful to life on Earth. Nowadays, the private sector is more and more involved in the development of space-based technologies. Funding for scientific progress must continue in order to achieve mutual results.


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