Space Spinoffs: Earthly Payback from ISS Technology
Monday, October 22nd, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Sometimes it’s hard to see price tags on space projects — $2.5 billion for Curiosity, $60 million for a Soyuz seat just to get an astronaut to and from the International Space Station — without thinking about how that money might be used on Earth. Well, in most cases, the money does have an Earthly payback. Take the International Space Station:
One of the key tools aboard the ISS is Canadarm2, the next generation robotic arm that, like its namesake aboard the Space Shuttle, has became an indispensable part of ISS operations.
Canadarm2 can move with such remarkable precision that the hardware and software developed for it have been incorporated into robotic surgical tools on Earth. And the technology has not only improved medical benefits, but also reduced the time a patient spends in surgery and recovery. That’s worth a chunk of change.
The European Space Agency helped sponsor a symposium in Berlin earlier this year touting various research benefits from the ISS, including improved medical sensors developed to monitor astronaut health, using plasma irradition therapy to control bacteria that is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, and even atomic clocks that are more accurate than ever before because they are free from gravity.
Here are just a few of the spinoffs NASA points to on its ‘International Space Station Spinoffs‘ website:
- The ZipNut is a fastening device first developed for the Space Shuttle that became a key element in the robotic assembly of the ISS. Because the bolt can be pushed into place rather than turned and tightened, it “vastly” cuts down on construction time. On Earth, it has found uses in firefighting, aerospace technologies, and manufacturing. The ZipNut was used at a nuclear materials processing facility to speed maintenance and cut worker exposure to radiation.
- The hand-held Personal Cabin Press Pressure Altitude Monitor and Warning System warns pilots of “potentially dangerous and deteriorating cabin pressure altitude conditions before hypoxia becomes a threat”. Today, it’s also used in scuba diving, skydiving, mountain climbing, altitude chambers, and underwater habitats, according to NASA.
- Waste storage and disposal is always a concern in space. To deal with waste water purification aboard the ISS, a technology was developed using direct osmosis followed by reverse osmosis. Because the process extracts water from waste, it is today being used in landfills on Earth.
- Like the views from a 360-degree panoramic camera? The technology was developed to help guide space robots aboard the Shuttle and ISS, among other uses. Today it’s also handy in many non-invasive surgical procedures.
- And for the golf fanatics, those Nicklaus Golf Co. clubs you admire may use Zeemet inserts, which are made from an alloy developed for materials used in building the ISS. “Its superelastic and high damping attributes translate into more spin on the ball, greater control and a solid feel,” says NASA.
So, sure, significant money is paid out for space projects. But for the patients among us who spend less time on the surgical table, or for the community that benefits from water production and recycling, the investment was probably worth it. And then some.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.