New frontiers: When the universe inspires engineers

New frontiers: When the universe inspires engineers

25 April 2019
innovation ITER space
Read the article

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.

Share :

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF THE FILE :
Innovation

Something to say ?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Bernard Blanc

Nuclear Development Director Assystem

Our vacancies
##INCREDIBLENGINEERS

Learn more

Related articles

A world tour of the latest rail innovations

While waiting for Hyperloop – the ultra-high-speed train dreamed up by the South African entrepreneur Elon Musk – rail sector companies haven’t given up on the race for innovation. Locomotives that ar...

5G is going to change the world! But what does that mean for engineers?

By Alexandre Colonna, founder of Maoré Mobile, the fourth telecom operator in Mayotte, and Léon, an engineer working for a major French telecom group.

The Trans-Siberian Railway – no obstacle is insurmountable

The Trans-Siberian is the longest railway in the world. It has over 9,000 km of track – mostly built between 1891 and 1916 – and stretches across the enormous expanse of Russia, from Moscow to Vladivo...

Interview with Robert Plana – “Being a CTO in an engineering firm”

Having started out as a researcher, Robert Plana gradually moved towards more managerial roles in the public and private research sectors. After spending several years at Alstom and then General Elect...

Fictional engineers – geniuses or mad scientists?

Ever since the 19th century, literature, comic strips and movies have been filled with scientific characters who are either villains or heroes, mad or serious, solitary or sociable. Whether they are i...

Small Modular Reactors: a new approach to generating nuclear energy

Quicker to build, smaller and more modular, SMRs are an answer to the need for low- or medium-output zero-carbon energy generation in locations that can, at times, be remote. Reliability and safety ob...

Calling on engineers to combat global warming!

Combatting global warming requires citizens to rethink their lifestyles, businesses to alter their industrial processes, and politicians to set an example and pass legislation that encourages eco-frie...

Project Imagine

Enabling energy transition and the digital revolution is Assystem’s mission statement, and the Imagine programme is playing a central role in helping us turn this statement into action. The engineerin...

CRISPR – CAS9

Will we soon be able to see woolly mammoths at the zoo? According to Harvard University geneticist, George Church, it’s a possibility. He has announced that by crossing the DNA of a mammoth conserved ...

Mixed Reality - Magic Reality

The people at Magic Leap are fund-raising magicians. They managed to raise $1.9 billion in the space of six years without launching a single product, a prototype or even any tangible details of their ...

Jugaad innovation - Frugal engineering

The economic environment has become increasingly unsettled and even for large corporations the future is uncertain. In order to survive, businesses need to innovate, but 50% of company leaders worldwi...

Xavier Duportet

If you imagine all biology researchers as mad geniuses in lab coats, then you’d be surprised by the biology engineer, Xavier Duportet. Aged 28, he was ranked in Forbes “30 under 30” list for Eur...

Self-Healing glass - The real serendipity

Very rarely, a major innovation can come about by accident or mistake. This phenomenon is called serendipity and has brought us one of the most revolutionary products of our time. Are we talking about...

Joël De Rosnay

What will the future bring? Only a handful of people have the answer to that and Joël Rosnay is one of them. In 1975 he impressively predicted today’s major trends, in his book Le Macroscope. And at n...

Cyberdyne - intelligent exoskeleton

Any genuine science fiction fan must have fantasized about having an exoskeleton like Iron Man that enables him to fly and become a technologically advanced superhero. Reality is less sexy but no less...

Alexandre Cadain

What do AI, an art gallery in the trendy Marais district of Paris and the Hyperloop have in common? They’ve all come under the eye of Alexandre Cadain, a young French entrepreneur. Although at f...

Body Hackers

You may already be familiar with Juan Enriquez’s position on the future relationship between people and robots. However, some people do more than just talk, they conduct experiments. Calling themselve...

PROTEI – Cleaning up the seas

It’s easy to understand why intellectual property is considered a fundamental right. After all, it’s normal to want to protect an idea or a concept and make money out of it. But is this “every man for...

Garage inventors – legend or reality?

1938 – Palo Alto, in California. William Hewlett and David Packard, two visionary engineers, set up a workshop in a simple garage backing onto David Packard’s house to work in peace and quiet on...

Ecocapsule - The caravan of the future

When you see this 2.5-metre high egg-shaped structure, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a prototype survival pod for life on Mars. In fact, it’s intended for life on Earth, but not j...

The Greatest Engineers of all Time

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), an Italian painter, sculptor and inventor It would be impossible to start this list without referring to Leonardo da Vinci. A universal genius par excellence, Leonardo d...

Robotmart - The connected online grocery store

Who hasn’t thought, when ordering a hamburger, that if it was just as easy to order fresh fruit and vegetables on line we really would adopt a healthier diet? The trouble is, finding really fresh, aff...

Stories of the craziest projects of all time

Twenty thousand leagues under the sea For centuries, the idea of a vessel that could navigate underwater fed people’s imagination and scores of engineers have worked on submarine travel througho...

Woodoo – WoodWhat ?

A young French engineer was helped by a secret agent to encrypt his computer and protect the material he’d invented, which is rot-proof, fire-resistant, strong enough to be used in the construction of...

"I've been offered the opportunity to move on to several positions"

Between France and the UK, Nicholas Morris is currently experiencing the daily challenge of developing Assystem’s business around the British EPR project, Hinkley Point C. “FascinatingR...

Will we still need engineers in the future?

The question is not as strange as it might seem. Given the phenomenal growth of digital technology, robotics and artificial intelligence, where does this leave the engineers of tomorrow? How will they...

No, I'm not a superhero

For ordinary people, when we talk about engineers, is the image of Steve Job, inventor of the first Macintosh and founder of a now trillionaire company, or Elon Musk, imagining alone the car new gener...

So what exactly is an engineer?

Engineer /ɛndʒɪˈnɪə/, derived from the Middle English “engineour” and from the Old French “engigneor” – a designer and constructor of fortifications and weapons. > A person ...

Commute, work, sleep ... Inside an engineer's head during a banal day

Builders of bridges or power plants, application developers, designers, project managers … But what exactly do all these engineers do? Between meetings, exchanges with the client, team managemen...

When I grow up, I want to be an engineer!

Engineering schools are still as popular as ever. Why? Do we really know what an engineer is? Their backgrounds? Their daily lives? To answer this, we met up with three of them to find out more about ...

NASA’s taking nuclear energy into space

The conquest of space is more than ever at the centre of public attention, with projects like SpaceX and The Stealth Space Company, but who better than NASA to fulfil this dream that has existed for t...

Big Data Automation

It’s no secret that data is the lifeblood of more and more companies. While it brings many benefits for those who use it wisely, it creates just as many constraints for those who don’t. Ma...