How Innovation From Space Shapes The Modern World

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Written By Mohsen Salami

Tech advancements such as the blockchain, nanotechnology and 3D printing are valuable ways to improve how we work, produce new resources, or communicate – but they also have a common link to space exploration.

New materials significantly impact how humans design and build spacecraft with the resistance, durability and functionality not just to reach space and land on other planets but to map the solar system, extract samples, and transmit that data back to Earth.

Rockets are built from composites and highly lightweight carbon fibres, making them safer, faster, and cost less fuel. 3D printing is a solution to use the microgravity environment to print tools and even fibre optic cables.

Today, we look at how and why space is connected to modern-world tech and some of the innovations you probably already know about that are influenced by space travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

How Is Space Travel Connected To The Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0 or 4IR, is the current technological phase, including manufacturing, automation and connectivity – think artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the increasing adoption of robotics in fields as diverse as banking, production and medicine.

Technically, 4IR is all about cyber-physical systems, whereas the previous industrial revolutions have been related to steam and water, electricity and mass manufacturing, and IT and electronics, respectively.

Self-driving cars, the Internet of Things, biotech, and energy storage are all aspects of Industry 4.0, with the potential to change almost everything about how we live, with a core focus on quality of life, sustainability and efficiency.

Space exploration, in comparison, is quite familiar. The first crewed space flight occurred in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth for 108 minutes. He has since been followed by crewed vessels landing on the moon and rovers reaching Mars – with NASA hoping to repeat the trip once the technology to get humans there safely has been developed.

The connection between the two is the convergence of adaptive technologies, using the data and insights extracted from space exploration to inform 4IR developments and using on-the-ground advancements to make space travel more viable and on a broader scale.

Small satellites launched today often carry sensors that can capture footage and images, provide power for land-based technologies, and extract intelligence that scientists can transform into commercial applications from monitoring carbon emissions, tracking energy supplies and tracing global warming events and their impacts on agriculture, health and air quality.

Significant Technology Stemming From Space Exploration

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is the best-known space travel organisation. It operates independently of the US government and heads up the country’s space research and civil space programmes. The agency has dubbed space technology that has use cases on Earth as ‘spinoff technologies’.

One of the easiest illustrations is GPS tech, which we now use when finding a venue on Google Maps or following an in-built GPS in our cars. However, global positioning systems wouldn’t exist as a navigation tool – or in functions for weapons targeting – without space travel.

Today, GPS tech is also used in ordering goods and monitoring our daily steps, with further applications in automated drone flights and self-driving cars, relying on GPS data transmitted from orbiting satellites to find destinations.

Other technologies arising from deep space exploration include:

  • Infrared thermometers used to measure the energy produced by eardrums were developed from NASA’s astronomy technology, originally designed to measure the heat signatures of planets and stars.
  • Robotics and shock absorption testing provided the basic technology needed to create newer, lighter and more robust artificial limbs, using research conducted during materials testing for space travel purposes.
  • CAT scanners used in modern medicine are also based on space exploration, using the technology created by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now, this same tech is used to see detailed images of the body to help diagnose tumours, fractures and blood clots.

Some countless other devices and innovations are all based on space tech or the research conducted to find better ways to explore outer space, from scratch-resistant lenses for glasses to freeze-dried foods and even wireless speakers and headsets.

How Is Space Science Beneficial To Society?

International governments invest vast amounts of spending into space travel, partly in a bid to be the first to achieve a new milestone, but also in terms of safety – having a well-placed satellite system that can deploy weapons at the touch of a button is less than reassuring. Still, it is often considered the ultimate global power play.

The latest Statista figures indicate that in 2022, the biggest spenders were the USA, China and Japan, with space programme budgets of $61.97 billion, $11.94 billion and $4.9 billion – the US space exploration budget has increased 13.5 per cent since 2020.

Tech created for space travel, financed by these enormous budgets, can be applied elsewhere, using innovations that can reduce accident risks, provide more successful ways to treat illnesses or diseases and prevent avoidable injuries.

Safety-based developments such as anti-icing systems were created for aircraft and rockets, with grooving designed to allow crafts to take off from wet ground. You can now find these same technologies on major motorways and airports worldwide.

The NASA Skylab programme, initiated in the 1970s, first developed the science behind smoke and CO2 detectors – devices you’ll find in almost every home and business in the developed world.

Fireproof materials engineered to prevent fire risks in space, also developed by NASA scientists, are now the norm in fireproofing, used by emergency fire response teams, engineers and workers in multiple industries and sectors with heat, smoke or fire-related risks.

The reality is that whether we consider cutting-edge tech used in 3D printing and nanotechnology or the simplicity of a smoke detector, many of these devices and inventions would only exist with the investment and expertise behind space exploration. NASA launched the Technology Transfer Program in 1958 – now renamed the NASA Spinoff Program – intended to look at ways to pass on resources and developments to the commercial sector to aid in alternative use cases and knowledge sharing.

Aspects Of Space Exploration That Help To Solve Global Crises

Space travel and analysis is a vast, complex field. Still, multiple applications have real-world implications and can provide the data and insights to help address and even reverse some of the planet’s most significant challenges.

Earth-imaging satellites are a great example, with imagery available to dissect on a single-pixel basis, enabling scientists to identify:

  • Optimal ways to use water, fertiliser and other scarce resources, creating vegetation indices to help with better crop production and agricultural yields, particularly in developing countries.
  • The water levels in reservoirs used to predict water shortages, droughts and flooding before they happen.
  • Impacts of deforestation and pollution levels, focusing efforts to reverse pollutants leaking into the sea or ensuring governments know where and how illegal deforestation is happening.

Communications satellites are equally helpful, with around half of the current global population having access to an internet connection. Satellites owned by organisations such as OneWeb and SpaceX can provide connectivity and communications infrastructure to some of the most remote corners of the planet, enabling virtual education classes, medical consultations and emergency response calls.

The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015 by the United Nations, summarise these and many more world-level issues and detail how space can provide the information and globalised data scientists, analysts, and regulators need to tackle them by leveraging satellite technology and other outcomes of space exploration.

Space Exploration To Influence Technological Developments FAQ

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Industry 4.0 refers to the merger between biological, physical and digital technologies in applications such as cyber tech, biodiversity science and blockchain. It is considered the current era of technological development, where innovations, including 3D printing and materials sciences, are making breakthroughs with enormous implications.

How far has space exploration developed in recent years?

Since the first satellite reached orbit, scientists have deployed manned crews to the moon, explored the solar system with probes, and even dispatched analytical instruments into space. The next milestone may be approaching if NASA successfully launches the Psyche craft into the asteroid belt at the end of 2023.

Why are space exploration and technology connected?

Space science has been the driving force behind countless technologies we now use, from freeze-drying food to using CAT scans to diagnose brain tumours. Materials sciences for designing new compounds for space vessels and equipment are also repurposed with commercial and safety applications.

What is the next step in space exploration?

Space experts believe the next step will be to set up outposts within the asteroid belt with the potential to be used for materials mining and fuelling. Robotic crews will also be sent into the outer solar system to provide data and research materials.

What is a spinoff technology?

Spinoff tech is the name given by NASA to technologies and applications for innovations created with the primary intention of use within space exploration but with practical secondary applications within the commercial sector.