Life in Space: Preparing for an increasingly tangible reality
By Sarah Beckmann | MIT Media Lab
The Space Exploration Initiative supports research across and beyond MIT in two zero gravity flights this spring
As a not-so-distant future that includes space tourism and people living off-planet approaches, the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative is designing and researching the activities humans will pursue in new, weightless environments.
Since 2017, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) has orchestrated regular parabolic flights through the ZERO-G Research Program to test experiments that rely on microgravity. This May, the SEI supported researchers from the Media Lab, MIT Aero Astro, MIT EAPS, MIT Kavli Institute, MIT ACT, MIT CSAIL, MIT Mechanical Engineering, Harvard SEAS, the CCAM at Yale University, the multi-affiliated Szostak Laboratory, and Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology to fly 22 different projects exploring research as diverse as fermentation, reconfigurable space structures, and the search for life in space.
Most of these projects resulted from the 2019 or 2020 zero gravity flight course taught by SEI founder and director Ariel Ekblaw, who began teaching the class in 2018. (Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 flight was postponed, leading to two cohorts being flown this year.) “The course is intentionally titled ‘Prototyping our Sci-Fi Space Future,’” she says, “because this flight opportunity that SEI wrangles, for labs across MIT, is meant to incubate and curate the future artifacts for life in space and robotic exploration — bringing the Media Lab’s uniqueness, magic, and creativity into the process.”
The class prepares researchers for the realities of parabolic flights — which involves conducting experiments in short, 20-second bursts of zero gravity. As the course continues to offer hands-on research and logistical preparation, and as more of these flights are executed, the projects themselves are demonstrating increasing ambition and maturity.
“What was really noticeable is the increased sophistication of student experiments over previous zero g flights in which I’ve participated,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and SEI faculty advisor. “Some students are repeat flyers who have matured their experiments, and [other experiments] come from researchers across the MIT campus from a record number of MIT DLCs, and some included alumni and other external collaborators. In short, there was stiff competition to be selected, and some of the experiments are sufficiently far along that they’ll soon be suitable for spaceflight.”
Dream big, design bold
Both the 2020 and 2021 flight cohorts included daring new experiments that speak to SEI’s unique focus on research across disciplines. Some look to capitalize on the advantages of zero gravity, while others seek to help us find ways of living and working without the force that governs every moment of life on Earth.
Che-Wei Wang, Sands Fish, and Mehak Sarang from SEI collaborated on Zenolith, a novel free-flying pointing device to orient space travelers in the universe — or, as the research team puts it, a 3D space compass. “We were able to perform some maneuvers in zero gravity and confirm that our control system was functioning quite well, the first step towards having the device point to any point in the solar system with a simple input from the user,” says Sarang. “Having the ability to take the device off-tether and free-fly with it illuminated challenges of designing rotating objects for use in microgravity — we’ll still have to tweak the design as we work towards our ultimate goal of sending the device to the International Space Station where it can be used by an astronaut!”
Then there’s the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit project by Rachel Bellisle, a doctoral student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program and a Draper Fellow. The Skinsuit is designed to replicate the effects of Earth gravity, for use in exercise on future missions to the moon or to Mars (where current exercise equipment may be too large and bulky for the small spacecraft) and to further attenuate microgravity-induced physiological effects in current ISS mission scenarios. The suit has a 10+ year history of development at MIT and internationally, with prior parabolic flight experiments, and originated in the lab of Media Lab director Dava Newman; Bellisle is currently studying under Newman and is working on the latest version of the suit.
“Designing, flying, and testing an actual prototype is the best way that I know of to prepare our suit designs for actual long-term spaceflight missions,” says Newman. “And flying in microgravity and partial gravity on the ZERO-G plane is a blast!”
AgriFuge, from Somayajulu Dhulipala and Manwei Chan (who are graduate students in MIT Mechanical Engineering and MIT Aero Astro respectively), is another project designed to simulate the conditions of gravity in a zero gravity environment. A rotating plant habitat that provides simulated gravity as well as a controllable irrigation system, AgriFuge anticipates a future of long-duration missions where the crew will grow their own plants — to replenish oxygen and food, as well as for the psychological benefits of caring for plants. “In the future we wish to see several such spheres floating around the ISS and astronauts [casually spinning] them as often as we water plants at home and see them grow,” says Dhulipala.
Alongside AgriFuge, two more cooking-related projects include H0TP0T, by Larissa Zhou from Harvard SEAS, and Gravity Proof, by Maggie Coblentz of the SEI — each of which help demonstrate a growing portfolio of practical “life in space” research being flown and tested on these flights. Coblentz’s project is part of a multi-year research area she calls Interplanetary Gastronomy, and through this work she explores compelling and gradually more relevant questions, as she says: “What does it mean to bring bread to space, a staple food that is one of the oldest recorded human-made foods? What is it like to smell freshly made dough and active yeast? How can we bring a sense of joy, spontaneity, and play to food in an environment so heavily governed by engineering constraints?”
The human touch
In addition to the increasingly ambitious and sophisticated individual projects, an emerging theme in SEI’s zero gravity endeavor is a focus on approaches to different aspects of life and culture in space — not only in relation to cooking, but also architecture, music and sound, art, wearables, and clothes that influence wellbeing.
Media Lab researcher Alexis Hope set a precedent for space art projects in 2019 by flying Space/Craft, which was an experiment in zero g sculpture. Following in Hope’s footsteps, Sanjana Sharma of the SEI flew her Fluid Expressions project this spring, which centers around the design of a memory capsule that functions as both a traveler’s painting kit for space and an embodied, material reminder of home. During the flight, she was able to produce three abstract watercolor paintings, and captured video footage of the process to develop a better understanding of how fluids interact with canvas in microgravity. “However, the most important part of this experience for me,” she says, “was the ability to develop a sense of what zero gravity actually feels like, as well as how the motions associated with painting differ during weightlessness.”
The Telemetron, led by SEI member Sands Fish, was one of the first music-based projects flown in 2017, and again this spring; the project aims to expand musical expression beyond the limits of Earth-based instruments and performers by leveraging sensors, data transmission and capture, as well as experiences of composers and performers in a kind of new audio-visual experience. Relatedly, Harmony in Precarity, developed by MIT ACT graduate student Po-Hao Chi, presents an augmented acoustic device that functions as a wearable medium reacting to the operator’s body dynamic or as an autonomous device with weightlessness — simulating the rainstick, which is an ancient musical instrument used by natives of South America to summon wind and rain and avoid drought. “My project integrates acoustic sound based on debris inside the device and movement pattern retrieved from gyroscope sensor data,” says Chi. “[It’s] about making an augmented musical interface to explore unfamiliar moments free from verticality.”
Rae Yuping Hsu, a recent graduate of MIT ACT, orchestrated Panspermia this spring, a project that combines artistic performance and biology, as the flyer wears a bio-designed flight suit and collides with a bacteria cellulose sac in microgravity. “This project is narrative based, an art performance that rethinks space exploration in terms of symbiosis,” says Hsu. “The flight suit I’m wearing is inoculated with slime molds and takes a bio-inspired design as a speculation for future space suits that engages in mutual survival with non-human lifeforms and collective intelligence.”
Side by side with Panspermia, Harmony in Precarity, and the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit are two more projects flown this spring that involve space wearables and suit prototypes: the Peristaltic Suit developed by Media Lab researcher Irmandy Wicaksono and the Bio-Digital Wearables or Space Health Enhancement project by Media Lab researcher Pat Pataranutaporn.
In an effort to mitigate the health risks induced by prolonged exposure to micro- and hyper-gravity, the Peristaltic (PS) Suit attempts to preserve and maintain astronauts’ health and wellbeing through its bioelectronic design, with potential to perform multi-modal, distributed physical and physiological sensing, as well as exert spatiotemporal and peristaltic pressure across the body — allowing researchers to study the direct influence of active-dynamic compression and micro- to hyper-gravity conditions on various physiological markers.
“I managed to get a stream of both physiological and compression data of my body,” says Wicaksono. “Each zero g parabola, however, only lasts for more or less 20 seconds. As astronauts usually spend weeks to months in the ISS, for example, long-term tests are needed in order to assess the effectiveness of the PS suit, and I’m hoping to explore this further in my research.”
Pataranutaporn also focuses on human health in his project, which involves a wearable device that integrates laboratory functions on a single medium to achieve customizable and multiplex health monitoring automation. “Wearables have the potential to play a critical role in monitoring, supporting, and sustaining human life in space, lessening the need for human medical expert intervention,” he says. “Also, having this microgravity experience after our SpaceCHI workshop…gave me so many ideas and inspirations for thinking about other on-body systems that can augment humans in space — that I don’t think I would get from just reading a research paper. There is something magical about being there in the microgravity that makes me rethink my experience of being an Earthling and [want] to do more research that allows more people to experience the wonder of space.”
Although Ekblaw did not fly TESSERAE, her self-assembling space architecture prototype, again this spring (the research has since graduated to ISS mission testing), she has been mentoring two additional architectural projects as part of a self-assembling suite of SEI-supported work: Self Assembling Space Frames by SEI’s Che-Wei Wang and Reconfigurable space structures by Martin Nisser of MIT CSAIL. Nisser’s project seeks to investigate a novel design and control mechanism by which reconfigurable space structures can be constructed — space structures (formed from cubes using an electromagnetic actuation method) that are able to adapt their form or properties to different environments and load cases in situ.
Meanwhile, Wang envisions his project as a way to build private spaces in zero gravity environments. “You could think of it like a pop-up tent for space,” he says. “The concept can potentially scale to much larger structures that self-assemble in space outside space stations.”
Onwards and upwards
Two projects that explore different notions of the search for life in space include Ø-scillation (a collaboration between several scientists at the MIT Kavli Institute, MIT Media Lab, MIT EAPS, and Harvard) and the Electronic Life-detection Instrument (ELI), by former MIT EAPS researcher and current faculty member at the Georgia Institute of Technology Chris Carr and Daniel Duzdevich, a postdoctoral research associate at the Szostak Laboratory.
The ELI project is a continuation of work within Zuber’s lab, and has been flown on previous flights. “Broadly, our goals are to build a low-mass life detection instrument capable of detecting life as we know it, or as we don’t know it,” says Carr. “The technology, which relies on electron tunneling across a nanogap electrode, developed by Masateru Taniguchi and other collaborators at Osaka University, has already demonstrated the ability to detect single amino acids and detect individual DNA and RNA bases.” During the 2021 flight, the researchers tested upgraded hardware that permits automatic real-time sub-nanometer gap control to improve the measurement fidelity of the system — with generally successful results.
The Ø-scillation project, led by Maximilian N. Günther (a Juan Carlos Torres Fellow at the MIT Kavli Institute), has both a science goal and a prototyping goal: “On the science side, we test if varying gravity environments may affect reaction rates for oscillating chemistry. Beyond that, this is the first prototyping step towards my 20-year vision of launching actual origin-of-life chemistry experiments into space,” says Günther. It’s important to note that for this flight, the researchers only used oscillating chemistry, not origin-of-life chemistry; again, the main goal is to gain experience — which they certainly did, as they reached their technical goal by succeeding in developing a flight-proof prototype — and eventually build up to study prebiotic chemistry in space over the next few decades.
Microgravity Hybrid Extrusion, led by SEI’s mission integrator, Sean Auffinger, with a team that includes Ekblaw, Nisser, Wang, and MIT UROP Aiden Padilla, was tested on both flights this spring and works towards building in situ, large scale space structures as well — it’s also one of the selected projects being flown on an ISS mission in December 2021. Traditional additive manufacturing processes, especially those that make use of liquid resin, are entirely dependent on the laws of gravity on Earth, and this team aims to demonstrate a new process for creating 3D structures specific to the zero gravity environment. During these zero gravity flights, the prototype successfully executed simple coil extrusion. Learnings from the recorded data and camera footage will be incorporated into a next generation of the hardware development, in order to fine tune the prototype for microgravity operation during the ISS mission later this year.
Media Lab researcher Javier Stober’s Candlewax Rockets project (which has now been flown on three zero g flights) investigates how to form wax-based rocket fuels in space, and will also be flying on the SEI’s ISS mission in December. “With three upcoming suborbital space flights [to be facilitated by Blue Origin] and one 30-day mission to the ISS, we see full characterization of liquid wax behavior upcoming,” says Stober, “which leads us closer to using wax as a propellant onboard a satellite, first experimentally, then ideally as a commoditized propulsion system.”
The SEI is also planning a prospective mission in 2022, an inaugural “Astronaut Interaction” on the ISS, where artifacts will have the chance to be played or manipulated by astronauts directly. “It’s important that these artifacts are ‘flight tested’ on the parabolic flight as part of the technology maturation prior to an in-flight ISS opportunity,” says Ekblaw. Current projects slated for this opportunity include the Telemetron and Zenolith, and more details on this mission are to come.
The busy flight season this past spring demonstrates that, no matter the obstacles put before them, the SEI is committed to stewarding space research opportunities for labs across MIT, as well as outside institutions. This is a momentous fifth anniversary year for SEI, and as these annual flights continue to happen, the experiments aboard them will keep growing more advanced, with researchers setting their sights higher and higher as they attempt to design and prepare for the future of interplanetary civilization.