Citizen Science Ventures into Space

Citizen Science Ventures Into Space


By Crux Guest Blogger | May 21, 2013 10:04 am

by Kiki Sanford

Inside a nondescript office building in Mountain View, California, a gathering took place recently that might have been a glimpse into the future.

At first, the people, like the building, didn’t offer many hints of what that future might look like. They came from all walks of life: young, old, students, businesspeople, men and women.

Then they started talking.

Rockets, microgravity, space planes, moon bases, gas stations in orbit – if you didn’t know better, you would think you had walked into a science fiction conference. But, in this case, reality is much better than fiction. These everyday people were learning how to design science experiments to take place in low Earth orbit.

The majority of attendees at the Space Hackers Workshop weren’t scientists. They were part of the growing movement of citizen science, experiments performed in a distributed way by non-specialists, tinkerers, and the scientifically curious. And now, building on the growing market for private space travel, citizen science is edging toward a new frontier: space.

How to get to space

Though the future of federal funding for American space travel is questionable, the space industry is currently experiencing incredible private sector growth. No fewer than twenty-three different vehicle designs capable of carrying passengers into space or low Earth orbit are currently in development or actively being tested. Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are the most visible of the contenders due to their recent successful test flights. Consequently, the opportunities for citizen scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to be part of humanity’s expansion into space are set to increase dramatically while at the same time becoming much more affordable.

The workshop, held May 4-5, was brimming with talks explaining the ways in which citizen scientists could get involved in space research and exploration.

In a presentation about the Lynx, a two-seat, reusable launch vehicle currently in development by XCOR, Khaki Rodway ran down a long list of scientific experiments that could fit into the 20 kg and 120 kg payloads of the suborbital spaceplane: everything from electronics testing for future technologies to be used on Earth or in space to remote imaging to help authorities fight forest fires more effectively.

Citizen scientists can design experiments individually or as part of a team and have them sent up as payload in spaceplanes like the Lynx. XCOR, expecting to make much of its profits from payload use, has laid out guidelines for payload development on their website. Payload cost will vary according to company and amount of space required, but XCOR quoted the range of $5,000 to $500,000. If you want to go to space alongside your experiment be prepared to shell out at least $95,000. NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program acts as a middleman to help scientists find flights for their projects.

Another option is to launch your own satellite. Small satellites called CubeSats are available to anyone, although academics, companies, and amateur satellite builders are currently the primary market. The present cost of sending a CubeSat into low-earth orbit ranges between $100,000-200,000 for construction and launch. However, several open-source components, including variations on arduino programming boards, alongside advancing smartphone technologies, are bringing down the cost for building and developing experiments.

Finally, there’ll be competitions. Initiatives in the mold of the XPRIZE have had success in soliciting research ideas from individuals and companies, and space research is following suit. Citizens In Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, has announced a High-Altitude Astrobiology Challenge which will award cash prizes of up to $10,000 to ordinary citizens for the development of devices to collect microbes from space. The group has also said that they plan to sponsor 100 citizen science experiments to fly on suborbital missions in the Lynx spaceplane.

The questions such research could answer are nearly limitless. For example, it’s thought that studying small aquatic invertebrates called waterbears (or tardigrades) might give us insight into human biology in space; synthetic biology could design useful microbes to transform waste into energy for long space missions; protein crystallization studies, sometimes easier in microgravity, have already led to pharmaceutical breakthroughs.

From basic biology and chemistry to more instantly applicable technology, there is more unknown about space than known at the moment, and a lot of room for ordinary people to iterate upon ideas.

Small businesses join the action

In addition to science, attendees were there with an eye toward business. Entrepreneurs discussed opportunities like 3-D printing in space, mining of objects in the solar system, manufacturing on the moon and Mars, and space tourism. Jim Kerevala, CEO of Shackleton Energy, and Jason Dunn, the Chief Technologist for Made In Space, both made the case that small-scale experiments in sub-orbital or orbital payloads will be the driving force behind new business development in the fledgling sector of space services.

For instance, the process of soldering, essential to electronics and metal work here on Earth, is not effective in microgravity. However, questions related to the soldering process can be tested easily on sub-orbital flights (and more cost-effectively than on the ISS). Anyone able to solve the problem of soldering in space and commercialize the solution stands to make a lot of money as more business moves off-planet.

However, new space-related businesses do still face an uphill battle. Sentiment about who is qualified to explore space needs to change if funding is to find its way into the hands of space-entrepreneurs. Currently, space advocates and entrepreneurs are thought of as “early adopters” whose projects often produce looks of incredulity and giggles in conversations with the uninitiated. Persistent communication programs will be a huge part of making space science and exploration more mainstream and fundable.

States step in

Implicit in all the presentations was the need for access to space: more rockets and space planes run by more companies are required before space really becomes a democratic place. But, as NASA steps back from its role in exploration, several states see the potential financial revenues and are stepping in. California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, New York and Texas are all currently discussing or planning spaceports. Texas and Florida, in particular, are working to entice space-related companies to base enterprises in their states. It looks as though Texas might get both SpaceX and XCOR, but it is still unknown who will be the victor in the state race for space.

As for the future vision of the space industry as a whole, that differs depending on who you talk to. Some see it as a place for industry or science, while others imagine that it will be populated by tourists.

In either case, in the near future – within just a few years – trips into suborbital space will be a daily occurrence in many parts of the U.S.

And the future of space will be a product of the combined efforts of everyone who labors to create it. (As Jim Kerevala of Shackleton Energy put it, “The supply chain doesn’t exist yet!”) The same way that ordinary people with extraordinary ideas have painted the current cultural and commercial landscape on the surface of the Earth, citizen scientists will be particularly important for the development of humanity’s expansion off of the planet. In conjunction with professional scientists, they will be among the first wave of explorers to shine a light on the darkness that surrounds us, and among the first experimenters to have a shot at testing the widgets upon which future space tourists will depend.

Dr. Kiki Sanford is a specialist in neuroscience and behavior. When not studying her toddler son, she tries to explain science and technology to anyone who will listen. She also hosts the weekly kickass science show This Week in Science, and harbors secret dreams of vacationing on the moon.

Image by BiterBig / Shutterstock

Innovation in the Classroom

Educating the Next Steve Jobs
How can schools teach students to be more innovative? Offer hands-on classes and don’t penalize failure


Most of our high schools and colleges are not preparing students to become innovators. To succeed in the 21st-century economy, students must learn to analyze and solve problems, collaborate, persevere, take calculated risks and learn from failure. To find out how to encourage these skills, I interviewed scores of innovators and their parents, teachers and employers. What I learned is that young Americans learn how to innovate most often despite their schooling—not because of it.

New Tech high school junior Kai Morgan in Napa, Calif., works on his trebuchet, a type of catapult. The school promotes ‘independent learning.’

Though few young people will become brilliant innovators like Steve Jobs, most can be taught the skills needed to become more innovative in whatever they do. A handful of high schools, colleges and graduate schools are teaching young people these skills—places like High Tech High in San Diego, the New Tech high schools (a network of 86 schools in 16 states), Olin College in Massachusetts, the Institute of Design ( at Stanford and the MIT Media Lab. The culture of learning in these programs is radically at odds with the culture of schooling in most classrooms.

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In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation. Amanda Alonzo, a 32-year-old teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., who has mentored two Intel Science Prize finalists and 10 semifinalists in the last two years—more than any other public school science teacher in the U.S.—told me, “One of the most important things I have to teach my students is that when you fail, you are learning.” Students gain lasting self-confidence not by being protected from failure but by learning that they can survive it.

The university system today demands and rewards specialization. Professors earn tenure based on research in narrow academic fields, and students are required to declare a major in a subject area. Though expertise is important, Google’s director of talent, Judy Gilbert, told me that the most important thing educators can do to prepare students for work in companies like hers is to teach them that problems can never be understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline. At Stanford’s and MIT’s Media Lab, all courses are interdisciplinary and based on the exploration of a problem or new opportunity. At Olin College, half the students create interdisciplinary majors like “Design for Sustainable Development” or “Mathematical Biology.”

Learning in most conventional education settings is a passive experience: The students listen. But at the most innovative schools, classes are “hands-on,” and students are creators, not mere consumers. They acquire skills and knowledge while solving a problem, creating a product or generating a new understanding. At High Tech High, ninth graders must develop a new business concept—imagining a new product or service, writing a business and marketing plan, and developing a budget. The teams present their plans to a panel of business leaders who assess their work. At Olin College, seniors take part in a yearlong project in which students work in teams on a real engineering problem supplied by one of the college’s corporate partners.

In conventional schools, students learn so that they can get good grades. My most important research finding is that young innovators are intrinsically motivated. The culture of learning in programs that excel at educating for innovation emphasize what I call the three P’s—play, passion and purpose. The play is discovery-based learning that leads young people to find and pursue a passion, which evolves, over time, into a deeper sense of purpose.

Mandating that schools teach innovation as if it were just another course or funding more charter schools won’t solve the problem. The solution requires a new way of evaluating student performance and investing in education. Students should have digital portfolios that demonstrate progressive mastery of the skills needed to innovate. Teachers need professional development to learn how to create hands-on, project-based, interdisciplinary courses. Larger school districts and states should establish new charter-like laboratory schools of choice that pioneer these new approaches.

Creating new lab schools around the country and training more teachers to innovate will take time. Meanwhile, what the parents of future innovators do matters enormously. My interviews with parents of today’s innovators revealed some fascinating patterns. They valued having their children pursue a genuine passion above their getting straight As, and they talked about the importance of “giving back.” As their children matured, they also encouraged them to take risks and learn from mistakes. There is much that all of us stand to learn from them.

—Mr. Wagner, a former high-school teacher, is the Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. His new book is “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

Super School University Note:  This article was added to help to inspire the students and teachers that are working on the Cabo Verde Tenth Island Project.  More Information: