New frontiers: When the universe inspires engineers

New frontiers: When the universe inspires engineers

25 April 2019
innovation ITER space
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People have always been fascinated by the stars, the Moon, the Sun and the outer reaches of the universe. This fascination has inspired the world’s most brilliant minds to study them and design the technologies and materials necessary for space flight. And this in turn has led to pushing boundaries, with humankind being the first to benefit. From the Internet to the ITER project and weather forecasting to the pacemaker, the innovations born out of physicists’ and engineers’ research significantly impact industry, the economy and society in general. Read on for an overview. 

Space seems to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration. It has fed the imaginations of authors, poets, painters and filmmakers and has opened up a fabulous field of observation, research and progress for scientists. Let’s start with the stars, and the most flamboyant of them all – the Sun. Visible from Earth and a source of light and heat, the sun has inspired dreams, and above all, sparked a host of questions. Especially about how it never stops burning.

In his 2018 book, ITER, étoile de la science [1], scientist and writer Michel Claessens says, “Our sun is an enormous ball of ionised gas – a plasma essentially made up of hydrogen and lit up for more than four billion years by the fusion reactions that take place in its core. But we had to wait until the early twentieth century to understand that. In 1920, the English astro-physicist, Arthur Eddington, was the first to suggest that the light of the stars came from nuclear reactions, i.e. the transmutation of hydrogen into helium.”

Other physicists went further with this understanding and looked closely at the sun’s fusion reactions. Michel Claessens goes on to say, “In 1934, the New Zealand-born physicist, Ernest Rutherford, earned his name as the father of nuclear physics when he was the first to achieve the fusion of deuterium (one of the two heavy isotopes of hydrogen) into helium in a laboratory at very high temperatures. Observing the ‘considerable effect’ that the reaction produced, he paved the way for further research into fusion, including the ITER project more than 90 years later.”

So, questions posed by scientists based on the observation of space have given rise to one of the largest and most ambitious energy projects in human history – ITER. This mega-project involves 35 nations from across the globe working together to produce a stable plasma capable of supplying our planet with sustainable energy in a similar way to the sun. “How can we recreate this energy on Earth? That’s the very purpose of ITER. If we manage to reproduce the fusion process in a controlled way, then what happens every day on the sun is what will happen inside a fusion reactor, explains Bernard Blanc, Nuclear Development Director at Assystem.

From the Moon to the Earth

Although we’re going to have to wait until around 2025 and the first fusion experiments carried out in the ITER tokamak reactor to prove that we can master fusion reaction on Earth, space has already brought us its share of innovations. Or rather, it has inspired engineers to invent and create the technologies needed to conquer space.

Other than enabling Man to walk on the moon, the Apollo programme – and before it Sputnik – were key to developing the technologies and materials we use today”, adds Bernard Blanc. “Behind the scenes of space programmes – just like behind the scenes of ITER – engineers push the boundaries of science. In doing so, they can discover reactions or design technologies that can then be incorporated into mass market products. We already have a wealth of innovation legacies, such as sat nav, weather forecasting and telecoms and we are also reaping the benefits of the miniaturisation required to adapt to the extremely confined conditions in rockets and other spatial vessels.”

For example, the flight computer in the Apollo capsules (the Apollo Guidance Computer) was the world’s first computer with integrated circuits. One of the outcomes of the Apollo programme was the development of micro-processors, i.e. the miniaturisation of several integrated circuits which ultimately enabled the creation of PCs.

The aerospace industry was also behind the creation and launch of satellites. Without them, there would be no TV broadcasts from the other side of the world, no mobile phones, no internet and of course no sat navs. Satellites were also at the origin of weather forecasting and now provide precise information to farmers, NGOs and the general public to help them understand and fight climate change.

All industries have benefited from and will continue to benefit from the work carried out by engineers on space-related missions and technologies. Take the medical industry – MRI scans are directly derived from digital imaging developed for space, and pacemakers run on long-lasting rechargeable batteries inspired by the Apollo vessels’ electrical systems. Space research also brought about the two-way telemetry system that’s used for communicating with satellites. And the brakes on high-speed trains are made of carbon composite materials developed for rocket boosters.

It’s impossible to cite all of the technologies derived from the space industry as there are so many of them. According to the reports published by NASA every year since 1976 that describe the market products resulting from its missions and research, these products total over 1,600. And that’s just for the US space agency.

When innovation rockets into orbit

While we’re waiting for Mars, Jupiter or other solar systems to be the drivers for new feats of engineering, for the moment there’s the International Space Station (ISS), whose construction was completed in 2011. ISS gives its visiting astronauts a better understanding of life in space so that missions to Mars or even further may one day be possible. It’s an orbiting laboratory that provides scientists with research findings that they cannot obtain on Earth. For example, materials don’t burn in the same way in microgravity conditions because hot air doesn’t rise. Researchers and engineers are therefore working on tests in orbit with a view to designing cleaner engines.

Microgravity also offers many potential opportunities for medicine and biology. For example, bacteria mutate more quickly in space, giving researchers the hope that they will be able to discover future forms of bacteria in advance so they can develop treatments or even eradicate the bacteria altogether, as soon as they appear on Earth.

To sum up, the scientific experiments being carried out on board the International Space Station are using microgravity for conducting research in nearly all scientific domains, with the support of physicists, industrialists, engineers and doctors across the globe.

Whether we’re trying to understand space, conquer it or turn it into a laboratory, its extraordinary diversity and its differences compared with our planet make it an incredible breeding ground for ideas and innovations for researchers and engineers.

[1] ITER, étoile de la Science, petite histoire dun projet scientifique titanesque, Michel Claessens, Les Éditions du Menhir, October 2018.

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Bernard Blanc

Nuclear Development Director Assystem

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