Mountain View Voice

News - May 10, 2013

Not your grandfather's space program

by Daniel DeBolt

With the promise of more affordable space flight on the horizon, "citizen scientists" are eying the possibility of conducting inexpensive research experiments in space.

Dozens of "space hackers" participated in a two day workshop at Mountain View's Hacker Dojo last weekend, with companies presenting various technologies that promise to make it easy and cheap to do research in space, from learning how fluids mix in microgravity to measuring the effects of outer space on plants and animals.

A group of community college students made the drive from Sacramento's American River college, hoping to become the first group of community college students to do research in space.

Conducting an experiment in space "would be beautiful" for students of a community college and "completely unheard of," said one of the students, Nile Mitto. He said his group was expecting to spend as little as $500 on their first experiment.

Whether Mitto and his fellow students will pull that off depends on the success of private companies building spacecraft designed to make several trips a day into space. One such company is Mojave-based XCOR, which claims to be nearly finished with its Lynx spacecraft.

"We intend to bring it down, fill it up and go again — and we intend to do that four times a day," said Khaki Rodway, calling Lynx capable of "aircraft like operations" carrying experiments and passengers — anyone willing to pay for an experience once limited to astronauts.

A digital video illustrated the wild concept — a small aircraft that takes off so quickly that it's already rocketing straight into outer space before it could hit the end of most runways. And most any runway will do — no launchpad required.

"We're very confident we'll see the Lynx flying a few months from now," said Edward Wright, founder of Citizens in Space, which organized the event. "And a year after that, if all goes well, it will be in commercial service."

Citizens in Space has purchased space for 10 "citizen astronauts" to fly aboard Lynx, as well as space for 100 experiments conducted by "citizen scientists."

"This is a chance for citizen scientists to develop and test new technologies, like bioreactors and 3D printing, in zero gravity; to collect microorganisms from the extreme upper atmosphere; to experiment with new processes for creating new materials; and do many more cool things," Wright said.

One local company that intends to profit from Lynx is NASA Ames-based Infinity Aerospace, founded by Singularity University graduates Manu Sharma and Brian Rieger. On display were the company's "Ardulab" experiment enclosures and programmable hardware which allow experiments in space to be operated from the ground.

If humans are to settle in space, "you have to have plants, you have to have bugs," Rieger said as he described a possible experiment using a small video camera to watch how bees are able to fly in space.

While commercial spacecraft like the Lynx may spend only a few minutes at a time in space, the fact that it can make the trip several times day is invaluable for research, Rieger said. It currently costs $30,000 to send an experiment to the International Space Station and it would be a "two-year experiment," Rieger said, a long time if a researcher who wants to make changes to his experiment and then try again.

Sharma said the goal of the workshop was to provide "plenty of resources, plenty of tools and lots of inspiration to create your very own space program. You could literally create your own experiments in space, raise money on Kickstarter and do things for yourself."

Sharma encouraged participants to share ideas from the conference on Twitter using the hashtag #makersinspace.

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