Citizen Science Ventures Into Space

By Guest Blogger | May 21, 2013 10:04 am

by Kiki Sanford

Inside a nondescript office building in Mountain View, California, a gathering took place recently that might have been a glimpse into the future.

At first, the people, like the building, didn’t offer many hints of what that future might look like. They came from all walks of life: young, old, students, businesspeople, men and women.

Then they started talking.

Rockets, microgravity, space planes, moon bases, gas stations in orbit – if you didn’t know better, you would think you had walked into a science fiction conference. But, in this case, reality is much better than fiction. These everyday people were learning how to design science experiments to take place in low Earth orbit.

The majority of attendees at the Space Hackers Workshop weren’t scientists. They were part of the growing movement of citizen science, experiments performed in a distributed way by non-specialists, tinkerers, and the scientifically curious. And now, building on the growing market for private space travel, citizen science is edging toward a new frontier: space.

How to get to space

Though the future of federal funding for American space travel is questionable, the space industry is currently experiencing incredible private sector growth. No fewer than twenty-three different vehicle designs capable of carrying passengers into space or low Earth orbit are currently in development or actively being tested. Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are the most visible of the contenders due to their recent successful test flights. Consequently, the opportunities for citizen scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to be part of humanity’s expansion into space are set to increase dramatically while at the same time becoming much more affordable.

The workshop, held May 4-5, was brimming with talks explaining the ways in which citizen scientists could get involved in space research and exploration.

In a presentation about the Lynx, a two-seat, reusable launch vehicle currently in development by XCOR, Khaki Rodway ran down a long list of scientific experiments that could fit into the 20 kg and 120 kg payloads of the suborbital spaceplane: everything from electronics testing for future technologies to be used on Earth or in space to remote imaging to help authorities fight forest fires more effectively.

Citizen scientists can design experiments individually or as part of a team and have them sent up as payload in spaceplanes like the Lynx. XCOR, expecting to make much of its profits from payload use, has laid out guidelines for payload development on their website. Payload cost will vary according to company and amount of space required, but XCOR quoted the range of $5,000 to $500,000. If you want to go to space alongside your experiment be prepared to shell out at least $95,000. NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program acts as a middleman to help scientists find flights for their projects.

Another option is to launch your own satellite. Small satellites called CubeSats are available to anyone, although academics, companies, and amateur satellite builders are currently the primary market. The present cost of sending a CubeSat into low-earth orbit ranges between $100,000-200,000 for construction and launch. However, several open-source components, including variations on arduino programming boards, alongside advancing smartphone technologies, are bringing down the cost for building and developing experiments.

Finally, there’ll be competitions. Initiatives in the mold of the XPRIZE have had success in soliciting research ideas from individuals and companies, and space research is following suit. Citizens In Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, has announced a High-Altitude Astrobiology Challenge which will award cash prizes of up to $10,000 to ordinary citizens for the development of devices to collect microbes from space. The group has also said that they plan to sponsor 100 citizen science experiments to fly on suborbital missions in the Lynx spaceplane.

The questions such research could answer are nearly limitless. For example, it’s thought that studying small aquatic invertebrates called waterbears (or tardigrades) might give us insight into human biology in space; synthetic biology could design useful microbes to transform waste into energy for long space missions; protein crystallization studies, sometimes easier in microgravity, have already led to pharmaceutical breakthroughs.

From basic biology and chemistry to more instantly applicable technology, there is more unknown about space than known at the moment, and a lot of room for ordinary people to iterate upon ideas.

Small businesses join the action

In addition to science, attendees were there with an eye toward business. Entrepreneurs discussed opportunities like 3-D printing in space, mining of objects in the solar system, manufacturing on the moon and Mars, and space tourism. Jim Kerevala, CEO of Shackleton Energy, and Jason Dunn, the Chief Technologist for Made In Space, both made the case that small-scale experiments in sub-orbital or orbital payloads will be the driving force behind new business development in the fledgling sector of space services.

For instance, the process of soldering, essential to electronics and metal work here on Earth, is not effective in microgravity. However, questions related to the soldering process can be tested easily on sub-orbital flights (and more cost-effectively than on the ISS). Anyone able to solve the problem of soldering in space and commercialize the solution stands to make a lot of money as more business moves off-planet.

However, new space-related businesses do still face an uphill battle. Sentiment about who is qualified to explore space needs to change if funding is to find its way into the hands of space-entrepreneurs. Currently, space advocates and entrepreneurs are thought of as “early adopters” whose projects often produce looks of incredulity and giggles in conversations with the uninitiated. Persistent communication programs will be a huge part of making space science and exploration more mainstream and fundable.

States step in

Implicit in all the presentations was the need for access to space: more rockets and space planes run by more companies are required before space really becomes a democratic place. But, as NASA steps back from its role in exploration, several states see the potential financial revenues and are stepping in. California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, New York and Texas are all currently discussing or planning spaceports. Texas and Florida, in particular, are working to entice space-related companies to base enterprises in their states. It looks as though Texas might get both SpaceX and XCOR, but it is still unknown who will be the victor in the state race for space.

As for the future vision of the space industry as a whole, that differs depending on who you talk to. Some see it as a place for industry or science, while others imagine that it will be populated by tourists.

In either case, in the near future – within just a few years – trips into suborbital space will be a daily occurrence in many parts of the U.S.

And the future of space will be a product of the combined efforts of everyone who labors to create it. (As Jim Kerevala of Shackleton Energy put it, “The supply chain doesn’t exist yet!”) The same way that ordinary people with extraordinary ideas have painted the current cultural and commercial landscape on the surface of the Earth, citizen scientists will be particularly important for the development of humanity’s expansion off of the planet. In conjunction with professional scientists, they will be among the first wave of explorers to shine a light on the darkness that surrounds us, and among the first experimenters to have a shot at testing the widgets upon which future space tourists will depend.

Dr. Kiki Sanford is a specialist in neuroscience and behavior. When not studying her toddler son, she tries to explain science and technology to anyone who will listen. She also hosts the weekly kickass science show This Week in Science, and harbors secret dreams of vacationing on the moon.

Image by BiterBig / Shutterstock

MORE ABOUT: citizen science, space
  • ulysses scott adkins

    Brilliant Article! Loved it!

  • Edward Dyer

    Great article. One of the most positive trends in science is the growing number of citizen scientist helping to advance science research.

  • SixSixSix

    Ok. What about the cost to the planet? Since most of us live on it, that interests me a whole lot more than rich people taking joy rides. Technologies no matter how “cool” have consequences. Guns are fun toys too, but unlike some I don’t believe in giving them toddlers.

    First, these propulsion systems will spew tons toxic waste into the atmosphere. Second they will do through out the atmospheric column including high into the sensitive parts of the atmosphere that if disturbed bad things happen down below. The Ozone hole for instance is improving since people realized to take corrective action, but it has not closed up. And it was not originally expected, it was discovered as an incidental cost of doing business after the fact. Who would have thought release of fluorocarbons at low altitude would be
    a problem, let alone exotic exhausts are high alttitude.

    Also CO2 levels are rising alarmingly. What else can get imbalanced? How well does the atmosphere clear out the chemical crap being dumped into at altitudes from low to very high? What are the climate and health consequences to the general environment including human health? Should this have been addressed long before now – of course, but it hasn’t. This pleasure launching business adds a significant new load, much of it of questionable need.

    Secondly if orbital flight is achieved. How will space junk by handled? Military, scientific and telecommunication motivation has already been disastrous for surrounding the planet with a dangerous cloud of high speed garbage. The more junk up there, the more the problem literally multiples. Will profit motivated people care? Will they listen if anybody tries to intervene, regulate and deal with the problem? Is near space the next tragedy of the commons. [Yes, that was a rhetorical question.]

    Finally, these rockets and rocket planes also make fine long range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. If you think a Boeing 757 made an amazing manned cruise missile on 9/11, how about something slamming down at 18,000 miles an hour into the heart of a major city? How are you going to regulate their launch, course, and re-entry or detect in time if the flight path becomes hostile? While the House of Representatives might make an excellent place for target practice, suppose the terrorist attacked something we are actually better off keeping?

    Let’s think before encouraging what may simply be really bad ideas that look cool. Just because sometime can line their pockets does not mean that it should be done with no consideration of those of us who live on this planet.

    • Randall Arms

      I love Earth, and wish to preserve it as well. After all, it is our home. However, there are many opportunities in harnessing space that could benefit the planet. Think of how much the Earth has to gain if all of the delicate resources we’re sucking up on this planet were gleaned elsewhere?

      • SixSixSix

        Do you really think that the cost of lifting things out of or putting things down into this gravity well or extracting materials under harsh and difficult condition will be economic in any time soon? The ISS proved after half trillion plus dollars to useful for manufacturing next to nothing. Nearly every advantage of “microgravity” was rapidly match by earth bound techniques.

        Even an asteroid made of pure platinum will not be worth the trouble for some time to come. Most of this is for tourism of the most wasteful sort. Also over time the security risk will be intense, especially with no-one in charge, the profit motive will be to look the other way just like the airlines did until disaster.

        The best use of space in out times is robotic exploration and wait advancement past the WW–II technologies of chemical rockets and heat engines. I would not waste time putting an astronomer in space when it is so much better to put the telescope in space and down-link to the astronomer on earth. On the other hand, a space elevator would change everything. Pure deep space vessels will not be chemical, least not like the ones that take off from earth. The nearest use to humans off planet might be the moon, but it is not likely to economic for a long time to come. At this point people in space are largely a liability and they will not be “spreading the seed” independent of earth. They will just be taking up more resources sucking on Mother Earth’s supply line.

        • Patrick Karnes

          are you crazy an asteroid past earth not long ago worth over 25 trillion dollars. that’s way more than a mission to mars or space mining could cost in over 50 missions. besides our natural resources are dwindling

          • SixSixSix

            At more than 25,000 mph! Try catching that as it goes whizzing by.

            There is an enormous amount of gold in sea water too. But not economically recoverable. The estimate of “value” is pointless in itself. The resources of earth are in many cases effectively infinite if you can get every last bit of them, which you can’t. There is an awful lot nickel and moisanite at the earths core, good luck getting it.

            Imagine if a tiny little mistake is made trying to nudge it winds up slamming it into Earth: something hits our planet which is three times the size of the cause of the last major extinction event. Now imagine extracting whatever might be of value and getting it down to the bottom of the gravity well without causing chaos: Earth, moon, Mars, wherever. Can you do all this mining with out creating on, near Earth, and inter-planetary hazards and ejection of materials? Perhaps you have a case for the space elevator concept but the whole package is nowhere near economic in the foreseeable future with known technologies.

            For sure, it is unlikely that human labor would be of any use. Life support and physical and mental human limitation (senses and need for rest/sleep) would not be worth supporting. The whole thing would be as ghostly empty of humans as a modern data center with 1 million servers and nobody in the room.

          • Patrick Karnes

            You are making an argument against something that we have already proven that we are capable of doing. We have caught up with and landed on an asteroid already. Sure it was unmanned, but landing on an asteroid has been done. Now, take the innovations of the last two hundred years, and look at them really close. I am sure there were people saying “You cant go to the moon, your crazy!” or “A horseless carriage? Something that runs off of some weird liquid? That’s nuts!” but still these innovations happened. Were not talking about catching an asteroid that is passing by earth, and mining it, were talking about going to an asteroid, bringing it back to Earth or Lunar orbit, than mining it. I was simply giving you an example of the money that was involved in mining asteroids. As for a mistake being made and it slamming into earth, I just don’t think that the government is going to let us do something that it believes would be catastrophic to the planet.

          • SixSixSix

            Somethings remain uneconomic. Sure high energy physics can literally change lead to gold, but it isn’t worth it. Alchemy is an economic failure not because governments conspire to make it so. Fusion is no closer than it was fifty years ago despite being the “next step” fifty years ago. Where is my flying car? As for catching an asteroid, the situation reminds of whatever does happen if the dog catches the car? Given the track record of human planning on drilling wells for energy exploration or climate disruption for that matter, and the reliability of software controlled systems, the risk of getting one of those things too close to earth is deeply concerning. Besides, which government regulates under what authority? If the economic system remains all under control of super rich people rigging the system to get super richer (i.e. the “private sector”) good luck keeping them form controlling the government. Not in America, where everything is for sale, including the Government, especially the Government.

          • Patrick Karnes

            Now you continue to revolve your argument, first it was not economically possible, than, it simply was not possible, and now were back to the economics of it. Than you say its concerning that we would bring one back to earth orbit. So is it possible or not? Or is it just concerning to you that we might screw it up along the way. This is a common form of arguing, changing your reasoning than bringing it full circle to try and confuse the person you are debating. Its like a revolving door. In all actuality I think you believe that we can do it, and it scares your that it may be botched and harm the planet. Kinda like the people who were afraid that the LHC would create a black hole on earth and destroy us. Anyway, I cannot prove anything to you that you do not want to see, so when it happens, and it will, than you will see that not only was it possible, but humankind has advanced itself enough to do it right. We are on the cusp of being a Type I planetary society. Until than, I hope that something eases your fears of the future.

          • SixSixSix

            I will agree that digression into meta-argumentative style quickly degenerates into noise. There are obvious questions of what is possible, both within foreseeable limits and further within the known rules of physics. There are question of economics which boil down to cost benefit. There are even more fundamental question of societal desires that the ultra-wealthy presume to settle for themselves but really shouldn’t on a global scale. There are questions of safety on personal, societal, and planetary levels. The LHCs example is pure red herring and you know it. Giant LHC do not regularly slam into the earth every 26 million years causing mass die off and mega-mass die offs. The threat from big Asteriods and Comet banging up the place can be found through the solar system, Earth included.

            Your unsupported conclusion about “Type 1 Planetary” Society may sound very official, but you have zero evidence that it is likely or sustainable other than it would be nice in the minds of some. Personally I would bank more on the Great Singularity of 2045, or some time well with this century, making human expansion obsolete as vastly more likely. The evidence for that is all around you. Humans are not evolving any faster than 300,000 years ago but information technology in general and intelligence in particular is about to leave the biological substrate behind. Neurons cannot compete with qubits and photonics.

          • Patrick Karnes

            Unsupported conclusion of almost becoming a type one society? Those are not my words, they come from great minds such as Michio Kaku, Neil Degrass Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and many others. It has been stated by many scientists that we are somewhere around .7 or .8 on that scale. Hell even Carl Sagan supported this hypothesis. As for my LHC example, it was to show not that you supported a fear that did not exist, but simply to give an example of the fear I think you felt. Your thoughts on leaving the biology behind should scare you more than bringing an asteroid into orbit, it sure as hell does me. I don’t want to become a machine. People generally think that robots could live forever. And they could, as a “species” but one individual robot, no, and if they found a way to put my consciousness into one, that would be the crappiest of things, I would hate to remember who I was, and not be able to feel like I had before.

          • SixSixSix

            Don’t worry about your conscious existence. It really isn’t that important. Besides ego is a carefully constructed illusion. Apparently NASA likes your asteroid capture idea. Good luck to all of you.

          • Patrick Karnes

            I can also tell that you are stuck in your thinking on this issue, so I will not argue with you about it. Just know that soon, this will be tried, the private sector is already chomping at the bit to give it a shot to get at that $$$.

          • Patrick Karnes

            oh and one more thing, just so you know, the ISS was not built to “manufacture” anything, it was built to conduct science experiments. If you want to bitch about the money we spent on something, why not bitch about the 30+ thousand nuclear missiles that were built and never used that cost half a million a piece. NASA could have put that money to good use.


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