What do high-tech sponges, aircraft shaped like falcons and 3D printers on the Moon have in common?
They can all be found among the topics of the 87 research and development activities funded by ESA’s Discovery & Preparation programme between November 2020 and April 2021.
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 six of the projects funded between November and April 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.
Shapeshifting aircraft inspired by nature
Inspired by the high-speed dive of the peregrine falcon, a team from Stellar Advanced Concepts is creating a proof-of-concept unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with shape-shifting wings. The UAV will be released from either a satellite orbiting or a pseudo-satellite high at altitude (HAPS). It will then descend to specific altitudes for tasks such as searching for and rescue operations or monitoring natural disasters.
“Whether for controlled entry from orbit or returning reusable launchers, exploiting aerodynamic lift has great potential for expanding the range of applications of space vehicles,” says ESA technical officer for the project, Johan Steelant.
” In the near future, the goal is to develop UAV products that fold like birds and allow for controlled diving from high altitudes and landings,” states Mike Newsam, Stellar Advanced Concepts team. This technology, when combined with sensors and artificial intelligence, could allow UAVs that are designed to protect airports to intercept and capture malicious drones like peregrine falcons. Long-term, advanced morphing wingslets for passenger aircraft may offer improved performance and lower emissions. “
“Support from ESA has allowed us to pursue cutting-edge technology that is high risk, high reward from a business perspective,” continues Newsam. ESA experts have given us many new ideas, such as the possibility of morphing wingslets to make reusable launch vehicles. ESA funding is a great way to encourage technology development at start-ups as well as SMEs. “
Easier access to Earth observation insights
How much have glaciers moved in the last five years? This question requires advanced computational and scientific expertise. What if you could simply ask the exact same question to a computer and get the answer? That is the goal of a team at EPFL who are designing an AI assistant for interacting with Earth observation data.
“The project is exploring new ways for humans to interact with remote sensing data,” says Devis Tuia, project leader at EPFL. Christel Chappuis, our PhD candidate, is creating a machine-learning model that will allow anyone to access Earth observation data. They can simply ask questions like they would to another person. The model will connect the question’s natural language with the relevant image data, and then analyze the results to give useful answers. “
“This type of co-funded research between ESA and leading universities and research centres in Europe accelerates the exchange of ideas,” says Bertrand Le Saux, ESA technical officer. This is particularly useful in harnessing the rapid advancements of fields such as natural language processing for space applications. “
The project will make it easier for potential entrepreneurs and policymakers to gain access to Earth observation data. This could lead to new business ideas and increase the economic and social impact of the data.
High-tech sponges for reliable radiation shielding
Astronauts are exposed to high levels of space radiation, especially when out on a spacewalk. Past ESA projects have developed spacesuits that use water to shield the most radiation-sensitive parts of the body, and these have been tested on board the International Space Station. Using liquid water can result in bulky and uneven containers that could leak. A co-funded project led by Ghent University is addressing this by replacing the liquid with superabsorbent polymers that can instead absorb several hundred times their own weight in water. This will result in astronauts being more comfortable and resilient to radiation.
“ESA’s increasing involvement in human exploration at the Moon and on to Mars has renewed the focus on one of the greatest challenges for human spaceflight – radiation,” says Riccardo Rampini, ESA technical officer.
“The support from ESA Discovery is allowing us to tackle the challenges we’ve encountered in the project and to develop and test new materials together with experts at ESA,” says Tom Gheysens, who leads the team at Ghent University. If all goes well, we’ll be able to launch a new type of radiation-shielding suit. In addition to protecting astronauts from space agencies like ESA, comfortable and reliable radiation shielding will be essential for emerging space tourism industries.
A self-growing 3D printer for the Moon
Plants are the factories of nature, transforming minerals and water into structural organic matter, such as fibres and cellulose. These processes could be harnessed on the Moon. A research team from the University of Trieste is examining the feasibility of using vegetable fibres grown in situ on the Moon to produce the raw material for a 3D printer.
“Building a base for humans on the Moon or Mars will require resources for the construction of its structures and facilities. Advenit Makaya is the ESA technical officer responsible for this project. However, these resources are bulky, heavy and expensive to ship out from Earth’s gravity.
A small 3D printer could be transported to the lunar surface to make new modules. These modules would then be attached by a robot to the printer, allowing it to grow and expand its production capabilities.
” We at the University of Trieste think that this intersection between 3D printing, cultivation has the potential for being a key technology in the long-term or temporary settlement of the Moon. We have been able to examine the fundamental features and problems of this paradigm with the support of ESA. This will ultimately allow us to overcome some of its core issues and bring the technology closer to a realistic implementation plan. “
Tracking plastic in Indonesian waterways
Rivers are a major source of the plastic pollution that enters the ocean. Plastic can form larger pieces as it travels down rivers. These patches may be identified based on how they reflect light.
A team from Deltares is investigating the possibility of detecting these plastic waste aggregations using remote sensing data collected by optical and microwave sensors on a range of European satellites.
“The ability to monitor plastic waste in rivers would support researchers modelling how plastic pollution flows from the land into the marine environment and help us evaluate the effectiveness of waste management policies,” says ESA technical officer Paolo Corradi. The activity, along with other ESA Discovery Campaign projects, will aid in the development and improvement of plastic pollution detection techniques and technologies for future remote sensing missions. “
“The support from ESA Discovery provides us access to the range of different satellite sensors we need in order to develop a multi-sensor monitoring method for detecting floating plastic waste,” says Marieke Eleveld from Deltares. “By combining satellite data with data collected on-site using RiverRecycle plastic capture systems, and developing the relevant data science techniques, I hope to provide information that will help regional and national governments design and evaluate measures to reduce plastic waste reaching the ocean.” Marieke Eleveld, Deltares, says. “
Spinning in AI to support space engineering activities
Much of the crucial information in engineering documents is still text-based, either because the return-on-investment of introducing models is too low or because the information is more efficiently expressed in natural language – even if that can lead to inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
A team from Thales Alenia Space is studying how AI-powered natural language processing can help space engineers reduce the cost and the lead time of their activities by improving how they navigate important textual content, providing links between and confirming the consistency of relevant documents, and facilitating the efficient reuse of knowledge.
“Everything from mission requirements to user manuals are text-based,” says ESA technical officer Jean-Loup Terraillon. This activity will have an impact on engineering activities during the entire lifecycle of a space mission. “
“Artificial intelligence will play a big role in the future of space engineering, greatly improving productivity, reducing costs and helping us manage the ever-increasing complexity of missions,” says Gerald Garcia of Thales Alenia Space. “Our project has sought to answer the questions of “how?” and ‘when?’ “Our project has set out to answer the questions of ‘how?’ and ‘when?” We, the European space community, need to start preparing now in order to keep our competitive edge. ESA’s Discovery & Preparation program has been a great supporter. “
Discover more about ESA’s Open Space Innovation Platform, including how you can submit your own ideas, via our dedicated webpage.
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