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New technologies for the future of European space
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New technologies for the future of European space
by Staff Writers
Paris (ESA) Oct 31, 2023

What do bacteria-based food production, avalanche monitoring and the mapping of Venus have in common? They can all be found among the topics of the 47 research and development activities funded by ESA's Discovery and Preparation programme between January and June 2023.

ESA set up the Open Space Innovation Platform (OSIP) to discover and invest in new unconventional ideas that could greatly benefit and advance European space industry and academia.

Here, the minds behind five of the projects funded between January and June tell us about their projects, motivations and goals, as well as the ways in which ESA Discovery funding is helping them take their activity to the next level.

From waste to taste: astronaut dinner made by bacteria
Think of your weekly food shop. It's heavy, it's bulky, and certain items turn bad quickly. For long-duration space missions, storing and launching lots of food, as well as keeping it fresh, is a major dilemma.

ESA Discovery funding is helping Finnish startup Solar Foods explore a solution that involves feeding bacteria with waste gases. The technology already works on Earth - resulting in a powder that can be transformed into tasty, healthy dishes - but could it be extended to space?

"Solar Foods has commercialised Solein, a protein ingredient produced 'out of thin air' using carbon dioxide and hydrogen," explains Arttu Luukanen, Solar Foods. "While the potential of hydrogen oxidising bacteria for food production in space has been suggested in the past, we are the first company aiming to do it in practice."

"Carbon dioxide and hydrogen are already available in space habitats as waste gases," says ESA space medicine expert Jonathan Scott. "As well as providing astronauts with fresh protein, Solein would support recycling and water management."

Arttu explains that the ultimate objective is to have one or more future space habitats house their Solein bioreactor: "We are convinced that with the significant upmass savings the bioprocess provides, we could save tens of millions of euros per year per habitat."

"We have found it valuable to interact with ESA experts who have provided us with a lot of information on crewed space habitats in general, the characteristics of contemporary environmental control and life support systems, and the requirements for nutrition."

Monitoring avalanches with satellite constellations
Every year, avalanches kill people and damage infrastructure. Since they often occur in remote areas, monitoring them using satellites could prove very useful. ESA Discovery has funded the German Fraunhofer Society to explore this idea further.

"Now that mega-constellations of satellites (such as OneWeb, Starlink and others) are available in low-Earth orbit, we want to investigate and hopefully demonstrate that there are potential useful applications," says Diego Cristallini, leading the research.

Satellite constellations offer continuous coverage of remote areas with multiple satellites looking from different observation angles. In this project, Diego and his colleagues are exploring whether we can use their 'passive radar' systems to detect avalanches; these systems listen for the reflections of radio waves off Earth's surface.

ESA engineer Ernesto Imbembo, who is following the research, explains the potential implications of being able to make use of this technology: "In the short term it could open the door to possible low-cost/low-mass passive radar demonstrators and in the long-term to ad-hoc missions for civil security applications like early-warning of avalanches."

Diego adds: "If we show that this technology is feasible, it could also have huge commercial relevance, because it could provide avalanche monitoring worldwide at low-cost. ESA support is vital for demonstrating this - because the technology-readiness level is pretty low, it would have been difficult to find financial support elsewhere."

Clean air for astronauts
"People on Earth are surrounded by fresh air. But astronauts in space do not have the luxury of simply opening a window!" bucher.solutions (in a consortium with Villinger R and D, Danube Private University and ionOXess) is receiving ESA Discovery funding to develop a novel system to disinfect and purify the air that space travellers breathe.

The system involves physical/molecular processes that deactivate bacteria, fungi and viruses, whilst avoiding the use of chemical additives. It could be used in an upgrade of the International Space Station's Advanced Closed Loop System.

ESA materials and processes engineer Malgorzata Holynska, who is covering this project together with ESA colleague Cathal Mooney, explains: "This activity is developing the technology that we could implement in future life support systems, aiming at sustainable, long-term exploration. The aim is to reduce airborne (bio)contamination on a space station and provide an alternative or complement to our existing systems that will one day need updating."

Lukas Bucher of bucher.solutions adds: "We see a multitude of potential application areas in addition to crewed space travel, Closed spaces are present all over the world. Lifts, airplanes, submarines, waiting rooms, public transportation, offices, basements, open-plan offices, cinemas, theatres, and many, many more!"

This is the first time bucher.solutions has worked on a space project. Lukas says: "The experiences we are gaining in the space sector with this project are exceptional and represent the ultimate challenge for technology enthusiasts across all industries."

Mapping Venus's surface in detail
Venus is Earth's mysterious twin, but little is known about the planet's surface and interior due to its thick cloud layer and the relatively few missions that have visited.

In the early 1990s, NASA's Magellan mission revealed that Venus's surface is dotted with massive volcanoes, weathered lava plains, and other evidence of continuous transformation. From this dataset and painstaking manual search, scientists have found one compelling case for surface change. With Discovery funding, Imperial College London is working on spotting these changes more effectively.

"We are developing intelligent software tools to reliably detect and quantify surface change on Venus, using radar imagery, in a semi-automated way," explains Philippa Mason, Imperial College London. "On Earth, this is relatively straightforward, but on Venus it is really challenging."

These open-source tools will be applied to images acquired by next-generation radar instruments on EnVision (ESA) and Veritas (NASA) missions. They will reveal how Venus's surface has changed between the 1990s and 2030s, as well as changes that occur during the missions.

ESA's Anne Grete Straume-Lindner, EnVision Project Scientist, highlights why the tools and new radar data will be so valuable for science: "They will help to answer key questions, namely why Venus is so different to Earth, how the surface of Venus has evolved over time, and whether there is any geological activity on the planet today."

Philippa explains that: "This project kicks off an eight-year programme of research, so we are extremely happy and grateful for the unique opportunity that ESA Discovery provides."

How does machine learning 'taste'?
A big challenge for using artificial intelligence in space missions is the heavy demand for computation resources. To solve this, dedicated pieces of hardware called 'hardware accelerators' can provide the necessary computing power. As part of its ambitions towards a model-based system engineering approach, ESA Discovery is supporting the Polytechnic University of Milan to translate machine learning to translate machine learning algorithms into hardware accelerators for space applications.

"This would have enormous impacts on how we can use machine learning in space," says Fabrizio Ferrandi, who is leading the research. "Hardware design of machine learning applications is receiving lots of attention, but until now no final solution has been discovered."

Maxime Perrotin, ESA software engineer, adds: "This activity is essential for us at ESA, as AI is going to be more and more important in our daily lives and this is one step towards its integration in our development processes. While model-based system engineering is being adopted for developing space systems, making the link with the growing AI frameworks now guarantees that the European space industry has early access to the possibilities offered by the combined use of these technologies."

Fabrizio adds: "OSIP is a great booster for the research since it grants the possibility to interact with engineers and researchers from ESA, who bring their priceless experience and support. Along with that, a wide range of real-world use cases is made available by ESA to test the research product, assess its capabilities, and ensure many can benefit from it in the future."

Related Links
Open Space Innovation Platform at ESA
The latest information about the Commercial Satellite Industry

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