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Session Digest: Gravity Matters

Posted at: 01.09.2023
We chat with space experts on how microgravity helps develop space-based experimentation.

Nicolas Gaume, Louise Ekland (presenter), Hélène Huby, and Daniel Campbell. Photo credit: VivaTech

Space is no longer exclusive to astronauts and astronomers. It has become a limitless laboratory for startups, corporations, and institutions to test their experiments thanks to a single ingredient that does not exist on Earth: microgravity. What is microgravity and what new experimental frontiers does it open$1

We sat down with 3 space experimentation experts on our VivaTech stage in 2022 to learn more. Nicolas Gaume, Co-founder and CEO of Space Cargo unlimitedHélène Huby, Co-founder and CEO of The Exploration Company, and Daniel Campbell, Managing Director of SpacePharma gave us their insights on what’s going on in space.

What is microgravity research$2

Astronauts have been experimenting on the International Space Station (ISS) since the late 90s. Research centers, pharmaceutical companies, and even middle school classrooms have sent projects into space to understand the effects of microgravity – the condition in which people or objects appear to be weightless. 

“The ISS is a pressurized vehicle, in orbit about 450 kilometers above our heads,” explained Nicolas Gaume whose company sent viticulture experiments to the ISS. “Inside the space station, everything is recreated to feel like earth: temperature, pressure, oxygen level. But one thing is not – gravity. And that changes everything.”

Without gravity, experiments in space can have completely different results compared to ones carried out on Earth. Gaume’s experiments on the ISS used this factor in its research of grape plants and wine production. 

We took grape plants from Bordeaux and sent them to the ISS for 10 months. We then brought them back and replanted on earth,” Gaume said. 

Because these plants were exposed to a microgravity environment, the plants were more resistant to stressors on Earth like mildew disease or changes in water levels. “Now wine producers can buy these plants which are more resistant to climate change thanks to this ‘boot camp"e; that the space environment has given them.”

The International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

When will we all be able to fly to space$3

As of now, recreational space travel is only available to those who can shell out for the experience. “If you want to fly to space today you have to pay 100-300k minimum. And if you want to stay a couple of days, it’s 50 million dollars,” explained Hélène Huby, CEO of the Exploration Company. 

Space travel is a growing market. Sub-earth orbit is going to become a sort of suburb of the earth. We want to serve these stations, to resupply them, to bring experiments to no-gravity environments at 10% of the current price.

With solutions like The Exploration Company that are cutting costs through reusable and refuelable vehicles, recreational space travel will be more accessible sooner than we might think.

Is space the newest place to experiment and develop drugs$4

The pharmaceutical industry has been conducting biomedical research in space to create therapies or drugs that can improve health back on Earth. Daniel Campbell, at the head of SpacePharma, is pioneering Microgravity research and manufacturing drugs in orbit.

“We allow researchers to not only send their experiments to space but to remotely control it from our own ground station,” explained Campbell. “Physics, chemistry, and biology behave differently in space. Which means we accelerate processes and tests accordingly like drug discovery and drug delivery and anti-aging products.”

Configuring the ISS’s Microgravity Science Glovebox for research operations. Photo credit: NASA

How else can space experimentation benefit us back on Earth$5

“The absence of gravity allows you to do many things,” said Gaume. “For instance, you can make new materials. On earth, if one material is heavier than another there won’t be a perfect blend, but in space, the blending can be perfect. 

But beyond experimentation in space from materials gathered on Earth, space also can provide an opportunity for raw materials. “There are many raw materials in space like cobalt, that are expensive and unsustainable to extract on earth,” continued Gaume. “We can find meteors or celestial bodies in space that could be mined and brought back to earth.”

Can space discoveries help with climate change on Earth$6

“When you’re in a spaceship or on a space station, you’re there for quite a while, so we have to recycle a lot of things,” explained Huby. “Technology membranes for purifying water for example were first created for space applications and then scaled for earth use. 

“We also recycle plastic on space stations. We take plastic and create a powder, which we use to print pieces for repairs on the station. Now imagine we scale this on earth by recycling plastic bags to print pieces for repairs on PCs, cars, or much more.”

“This is a new era where space supports Earth.”

There was a lot to dissect about microgravity on our VivaTech stage. If you want to watch the entire session with these space experts, you can watch it on our Digital Platform here!