The private and government-backed UK space sector is set to quadruple in size by 2030 and Imperial Space Lab is aiming to get in on the action.
Some people would have you believe that the pioneering spirit that put a man on the moon in 1969 has been lost in the past half century. Although piloted-missions have proved prohibitively costly and dangerous, you could conversely argue that we’re in a golden age of discovery – for example uncovering amazing and possibly life-harbouring worlds such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus and most recently chasing down, then landing on, comet 67P (all while zipping along at a cool 135,000 kilometres per hour).
Both these respective missions, Cassini and Rosetta, have had key experiments and technology build and designed here at Imperial. Indeed, the College has one of the largest and longest running space ‘harbours’ in the UK – dating back to Imperial’s involvement in the Ariel satellite missions of the late 1960s.
Traditionally though, the College’s space research groups have tended to operate quite independently – dispersed across a number of departments. But with the £9 billion UK space sector projected to grown to £40bn by 2030, spearheaded by the UK Space Agency, there’s a need for more collaboration both internally and externally.
That’s the thinking behind the Imperial SpaceLab, now in its second year, which gathers 140 researchers across all three faculties and the Business School.
Director of the Space Lab Professor Steve Schwartz (Physics) says: “The space research that we carry out is partly about the wonder of space and understanding the universe, but it also brings benefits here on Earth. When scientists, engineers, industry and government collaborate on space research great things can happen from weather forecasting and GPS navigation to medical diagnosis.
“SpaceLab is about reaching out across different academic departments and scientific disciplines, as well as industry, to come together, do something different and see what wider impacts our research might have.”
Health Tips from Zero-G
Working at the interface between medicine and space is Dr Richard Abel, Lecturer in Musculoskeletal Sciences in the Department of Surgery and Cancer. Having gained a PhD in palaeontology and comparative anatomy of monkeys before working in the mineralogy department at the Natural History Museum, Richard is accustomed to crossing boundaries.
Around a year ago he became interested in physiological conditions that afflict astronauts who spend several months at a time in the weightlessness of space – namely bone degradation similar to osteoporosis on Earth and eye and vision problems with parallels to glaucoma.
“Once you start to understand some of the mechanisms that lead to illness in astronauts, or lead to illness on Earth, you can extrapolate across and work out what’s really going on in both – revealing the bigger picture.”
Osteoporosis is chiefly caused by diminishing sex hormones, which are required for bone maintenance. Conversely, bone weakness in astronauts is chiefly caused by lack of impact-based exercise and loading.
“We know that somehow, loading works in concert with the sex hormones to maintain bone, but we don’t quite understand how. Engineers, if they want to understand how a system works, they will remove or break it part of it. Studying astronauts’ bones presents that opportunity because they cannot exercise with impact, only resistance.”
Richard is also looking at glaucoma, a condition caused by a build-up of pressure inside the eye, disturbing the optic nerve and in some cases leading to vision loss. Something similar can happen to astronauts who spend time in space but as a result of pressure decreases.
Working in collaboration with researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA, Richard has been performing high resolution CT scans of donated eyes whilst subjecting them to different levels of internal pressure in a special experimental set-up at the Diamond Light Source Facility in Oxfordshire.
Ultimately they are aiming to build up a dynamic three-dimensional computational model of a key part of the eye, which will help them to develop new diagnostic tools and treatments for terrestrial and extraterrestrial diseases.
Market insight ... from space
One exciting new area of SpaceLab research that cuts across the Faculty of Engineering, the Business School and Grantham Institute for Climate Change is led by Dr Enrico Biffis (Business School) – an economist who specialises in risk management and insurance. In recent years he and his team became interested in how the increasing occurrence of extreme weather and climate events poses a global threat to various economic sectors such as energy, transport and food production.
“From an economic point of view, when there is a big hurricane or flood for example, it’s very important to have a quick estimate of what the losses might be because there’s a lot of insured value that is supported by limited capital or securitised and hence people try to trade out with hedging instruments.”
There are two main aspects to Enrico’s team’s work: one is to better understand the market repercussions of extreme weather in real time as events unfold and the other is to model future events in order to understand how certain mitigation strategies might for example make crop yields more resilient.
However, most current sources of data simply are not accurate enough in terms of either spatial resolution or frequency to be put to good use for the rigours of economic modelling. Enrico’s team is investigating how integration of different data sources – geostationary space satellites, orbiting satellites and ground-based meteorological stations – can achieve better predictive models.
Those models will also help when it comes to changing practices and procedures in an effort to protect against future shocks.
“Of course you can’t talk to every farmer, but by teaming up with producers you can provide the right incentives using the price of insurance as a way of convincing farming cooperatives to adopt new technology, change seeds or use different areas for cultivation. That can create a lot of value and resilience in the market. But you need good information to do it.”
Busting fraud with supernovae
While the previous two academics featured were examples of non-physicists finding new avenues in space research or uses for space data, Dr Roberto Trotta (Physics) is a cosmologist through and through. One of his research areas focuses on supernovae – specifically how studying these stellar explosions can help map the expansion of the universe.
“We use them as signposts, to work out how the expansion of the universe changes with time. That in turn is influenced by what the Universe contains,” explains Roberto. “The ever increasing rate of expansion suggests that three quarters of the Universe is made of a mysterious form of energy, called dark energy.”
The real challenge is in interpreting the vast quantity of data, and in discerning whether certain patterns represent something cosmologically interesting and ‘real’ – or just background noise.
Roberto is now applying analysis methods used for supernovae to the detection of fraud in the consumer banking industry, flagging up when customers’ details might be being used nefariously.
“There is a great variability in consumer behaviour, and most transactions are perfectly fine. But if you haven’t seen a certain activity before how do you classify it? How do you pool your knowledge from other types of transactions in order to say something about that particular one for that customer at that time – and react quickly; you can’t mull it over for days!”
With funding from an EPSRC/ STFC impact acceleration grant, Roberto is now conducting a pilot study with a start-up company working with a major bank. It is sensitive work that requires patience, but it could be the start of something bigger.
“I think the challenge for us at Imperial and the SpaceLab is to make sure that the outside world perceives us as being at the forefront of data science challenges, because if you are a potential customer in the banking sector, insurance, shipping or energy, you wouldn’t necessarily dream of coming to an astrophysicist for help. So we need to be on the map and that takes time.”
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