Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 24, 2013

Getting off the ground

Entrepreneurs set sights on latest frontier of scientific discovery — 62 miles in the air

by Eric Van Susteren

Bright-eyed young professionals in jeans and button-up shirts milled around in Mountain View's Hacker Dojo earlier this month, some gathering around laptops to fiddle with an open-source software program, others huddling to talk about science and engineering. Subjects ranged from the intensely practical to the somewhat whimsical.

It was a classic Silicon Valley "hackathon" scene. What made it different was the subject: everyman science experiments in space.

The people came to the Space Hacker event, sponsored by the Mountain View-based Silicon Valley Space Center, ignited by the same idea — the possibility of launching citizen-designed space experiments into suborbit, where gravity has only a tiny fraction of the pull it has on Earth.

The extreme cost of getting into space has traditionally meant that the job of designing an experiment to be flown high above Earth is reserved for those with backing from governments or organizations with deep pockets. Sean Casey, managing director of the Silicon Valley Space Center, and Edward Wright, founder of the United States Rocket Academy, want to change that.

Wright said he'd like to see space become so accessible that every high school student can build an experiment that will be flown into space.

Wright is putting his money on the advent of relatively inexpensive vehicles that can enter and re-enter suborbit several times a day. Though it hasn't been tested yet, the Lynx, a suborbital spacecraft designed by XCor Aerospace, is designed to blast off from an airstrip as if it were a plane and take two passengers and cargo 62 miles in the air in a half-hour flight — and then do it all over again three more times a day.

Wright's organization has pre-bought 10 flights in the craft, which isn't expected to be ready until 2015, expressly for the purpose of fostering citizen science. Each flight will be able to hold approximately 10 small space experiments, designed by citizen engineers and scientists. The experiments' creators will be charged nothing for the trip, which have instead been financed by individual private donors.

Wright said he's interested in only those experiments that advance the fields of science or engineering, not textbook demonstrations that "everyone pretty much knows already." Aside from that, most of the requirements serve to ensure that the program is more inclusive, not less.

The organization requires that the hardware designs for the experiments be made available to other citizen scientists. Also, experiments must be replicable, with the manufacturing technology, costs and access to the components kept within reasonable limits.

"I think we're going to see a lot of citizen-scientist experiments from the early days of this picked up by professional researchers," he said. "Some will be low quality or will not produce interesting results, but the professionals version will. People should be taking them very seriously indeed."

While the experiments might not be as sophisticated as well-funded professional researchers, Wright sees promise in citizen science in broadening the range of experimentation, in part because they operate outside the traditional spheres of research.

NASA interprets its goals very specifically, Wright said. It's chartered by the Congress to promote space and aviation projects that benefit particular missions.

"So if you have a project that benefits the industry but doesn't specifically align with a NASA probe that's going to Mars, or very specifically tied to a current mission, it's often hard to get funding."

To get federal dollars, the scientist has to submit his idea to a peer-review process, and politics can make it difficult to fund certain things, he said.

For example, Casey said he would like to see more experiments that measure baseline factors with practical benefits such as vibration, acceleration, acoustic environment and radiation.

"Nobody gets funding for these types of things because they're not considered groundbreaking," he said. "You're competing for public money with other scientists who want to do high-profile, groundbreaking experiments."

But if a citizen scientist could perform even a basic experiment on his own dime, using off-the-shelf components, he wouldn't have to worry about competing for grants or submitting his experiment for peer review.

A benefit of this, Casey said, would be that citizen scientists might be compelled to share vital data about space rather than hide it. While a professional scientist might be motivated by profit and competition, a citizen scientist would ideally be motivated to share his ideas and advance science.

Manu Sharma, co-founder of Mountain View-based Infinity Aerospace, is also passionate about the idea of democratizing space technology.

The 22-year-old Stanford University student said he's always loved to build things. Before attending Stanford to study aeronautical engineering, he was a student at Singularity University, a highly competitive nonprofit in Mountain View, and is the founder of a wind-turbine company. It might be surprising that his latest venture involves building what are basically small plastic boxes with data-collection hardware attached, but he says the cubes, called Ardulabs, are much more.

The boxes' dimensions are uniform, but the hardware and software used to gather data are open source, meaning they can be modified to fit the experimenter's specifications.

They're not fancy, but they're rugged and easily adaptable media for performing experiments. One of the mandates that Wright's organization has for its citizen science experiments is that they fit in and function with Ardulabs.

"What we're doing is making sure that all the housekeeping work is done — it's a tool for people to use for their experiments that usually requires months and months of work to build and design," he said.

Sharma said he grew up making rocket engines and airplanes and was enthusiastic about sending an experiment to space, but when he was at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, he realized it would take four or five years to see anything he created ever fly. He was planning on graduating early and couldn't wait around to see his work completed.

"That doesn't foster innovation and creativity among students," he said.

Sharma co-founded Infinity Aerospace, which manufactures Ardulabs, and while it's still a very small company with just one full-time employee, it's profitable. It's already shipped 20 Ardulab models with "many more preordered."

"We realize that we're solving a real problem," he said. "It's actually been really easy to get customers."

"We see Ardulabs as a first demonstrator product in a company creating a huge impact on microgravity research. We're really coming out of the cave, and we're already making new products."

He said his goal is to make regular people realize that they can be the explorers "to the moon and Mars and beyond."

"Our overall philosophy is that we want to have people making open-source experiments. ... Imagine the day when we could build an open-source satellite," he said.

While space is an inherently alien environment, perhaps the most bizarre part of it for humans is the microgravity found there. Often mistakenly called zero gravity, microgravity describes the effects of gravity once an object is far enough away from the Earth that gravity's pull is diminished to a tiny fraction of what it was on the surface. In microgravity, fire burns in a different shape and peoples' muscles atrophy. Crystals even grow more uniformly.

Sharma said he sees microgravity as a fascinating and unique environment, one that raises many potential questions and could lead to a variety of applications. While it's critical to study its effects on the human body — and the formation of near-perfect crystals in microgravity could lead to breakthroughs in medical sciences — Sharma also has a generalized curiosity for how basic things work in space.

"How does a plant grow in microgravity? Do its roots still grow down? Could someone come up with an Angry Birds zero-g game? The goal isn't just to push science and technology. It's to push art and other things in space — everything."

Casey, of the Silicon Valley Space Center, said there is immense opportunity in studying microgravity.

"There are all these other forces that come into play that were there before but couldn't overcome the effects of gravity — surface tension in liquids, magnetic fields, etc.," he said.

Understanding these forces in space can give scientists a deeper knowledge of how other forces work and allow people to develop "an intuition" as to how mechanisms such as engines function in it.

Microgravity experiments can be done now, on the International Space Station or using a parabolic aircraft, but suborbital craft provides a happy medium between the two in terms of effectiveness and cost.

Five minutes might not seem like a long time to perform 10 experiments, but it's a lot longer than parabolic flights, which give scientists a series of 20- to 25-second spurts of simulated weightlessness. Using a conventional aircraft, parabolic flights fly up and down at 45-degree angles, reaching as high as 34,000 feet at their apex. This method goes back as far as 1959, when NASA was preparing astronauts for manned space flight in the Mercury Project. It was dubbed the "vomit comet."

Wright said the much lower altitude of parabolic aircraft and the shorter amplitude of each parabola it flies in can affect the data of experiments performed in them. Even calling them microgravity flights is a misnomer, he said.

Microgravity typically means one one-millionth of a G (the unit that describes gravity's effect on the surface of the Earth).

"It's not even close to that level," he said. "The best a pilot can do is 0.01 G, so technically it should be called centigravity.

"If you do a lot of parabolas, you can accumulate more flight time, but it's coming in the 25-second increments separated by hypergravity, and the transition is going to have an effect on your data."

Suborbital flights, which fly in one sustained, much higher parabola, have a superior quality of microgravity for experiments, he said.

The highest-quality, least interrupted microgravity experiments are those that are performed on the International Space Station, a $150 billion structure that flies 230 miles over Earth.

However, getting anything to the station is extremely expensive. Even a parabolic flight can be costly.

Zero-G, the U.S. company that launched the first commercial parabolic flight in 2004, charges $4,950 for a seat, but experiments are more costly — ranging from $6,500 for handheld experiments to $250,000 for experiments that are larger than 10 feet, involve more than 20 researchers or are confidential in nature, according to its website.

In comparison, the Russian Soyuz rockets, which currently make flights to the International Space Station, cost $70 million a seat, Wright said. Even the rockets from Tesla founder Elon Musk's space transportation company SpaceX, lauded for their affordability, would cost around $10 million a seat. A seat on the XCor Lynx is slated to cost around $95,000.

The cheapest way to get a payload to the International Space Station is using Nanoracks, a company that provides educational and commercial institutions with a means to get to the U.S. National Laboratory on the station, Wright said. But even that costs $30,000 to get an experiment that would fit in Sharma's Ardulabs to the station. For commercial organizations it costs twice as much, according to the company's website.

Most people consider infrastructure as roads, power lines or airports — the mind generally doesn't go to suborbital vehicles and rockets that fly to orbital space stations. But Casey said that's what companies like SpaceX and XCor and those forwarding the notion of citizen scientists are doing when they shoot things into space — laying down a space infrastructure.

SpaceX, founded in 2002, made history in 2012 by being the first company to ever launch a spacecraft that attached to the International Space Station. The company has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly 12 cargo missions to the station but has a total of $4 billion in contracts to launch commercial satellites and to complete projects for NASA.

XCor's model is completely different. Like Richard Branson Virgin Galactic, the Mojave, Calif.-based company set its sights primarily on space tourism instead of lucrative government contracts. XCor allows people to see Earth from the outside and asks them to pay thousands instead of millions, as past space tourists have paid to travel in Soyuz rockets. The craft's design also allows it to carry payloads with experiments such as Wright's or even small satellites.

The next step in suborbital exploration, and the most profitable one, he said, is developing an economy around the infrastructure that companies like XCor and SpaceX are beginning to create. Just as there are now app companies built around the Internet infrastructure, some companies like Sharma's are putting their eggs in the space-privatization basket, starting and funding companies that rely on a private infrastructure that hasn't yet been fully realized.

While the XCor Lynx is still in its testing phases and has yet to fly a mission, Wright hopes to be able to begin flying his citizen science experiments in the craft by late 2014 to early 2015.

Evoking a hockey reference, Casey calls it "skating to where the puck will be instead of where it is."

But before companies can make their fortune in space, it's important they ensure they won't encounter any surprises that will increase costs to an unreasonable degree along the way. The stakes are very high.

Casey called the government model a "cost-plus model," that is, the cost of the project plus whatever expenses are incurred along the way. A business can't operate that way — it can't afford the risk of developing such expensive technology and having it fail. At least, that's the way it has been.

"In the '60s and '70s, you didn't understand what the risks are," he said. "We think we understand the technology risks."

The risks aren't limited to hidden costs. The Challenger Disaster, which killed seven people in 1986, was the result of the failure of a single pressure seal on one of its engines. The 2003 explosion of the space shuttle Colombia, which also killed seven people, was the result of a small piece of foam flying loose and damaging one of the shuttle's wings.

Now, after 50 years of rocketry, a company like SpaceX can assess the risks and safely complete a fixed-price contract, Casey said.

Casey's vision, which he shares with many others, is one in which space exploration is led by NASA, which does the far-reaching experiments and voyages that no commercial entity could hope to afford. But businesses will do the things that are within their grasp financially, such as space tourism and resupplying the International Space Station.

Perhaps the most important step in the process, Sharma said, is inspiring the next generation of scientists.

"Everyone should have a chance to do something in space," he said. "Who is not inspired when they look up and see space and the stars?"

Online Editor Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at evansusteren@paweekly.com.

Comments

There are no comments yet for this post

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields