Have you ever considered how technological innovations from the space industry can benefit us here on Earth? You might be surprised to hear that non-space applications from space programmes are extensive. Since 1976, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) have developed over 2000 spin off technologies (NASA 2019), ESA (European Space Agency) have developed around 150 over the past 10 years (European Space Agency (ESA) n.d.), whilst ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) have transferred a further 300 technologies to Indian industries (Indian Space Research Organisation n.d.). From the development of ‘smart glasses’ to improve concentration, and the creation of an app to test and recalibrate fine motor skills, to software that can monitor the health of high-risk patients, possibilities and benefits are endless (NASA 2021).
In addition to these high-tech spin off innovations, we should not forget the bountiful opportunities provided by satellite images. Often originally commissioned for military intelligence and profit-driven fields, images from multiple satellites are being repurposed for the greater good of humanity. Organisations such as Earthrise and Digital Earth Africa, among others are helping people to access such images for applications from monitoring illegal mining and optimising agricultural water use, to identifying small surface water bodies and assessing land use changes over time, helping to empower citizens and to make informed decisions on the ground (NASA 2021).
Satellite images provide many applications related to water, as too do spin-off technologies, with the highly pressing challenge of access to clean water in space having been a boon for the water sector on Earth. From water testing to water filtration, Table 1 outlines some of the water-related spin-off applications with example innovations and technologies.
Water quality is just as, if not more important than water quantity. Poor quality water sources exposes users to a plethora of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. The ability to test water before use is therefore crucial. In higher income countries (HIC) water quality is generally taken for granted, dealt with by water utilities at treatment plants, however in situations where people are collecting water for themselves, being able to test water can be a lifesaver. NASA developed the Water Monitoring Suite (Figure 1) to monitor microbes, silica, and organic material in the water on the International Space Station (ISS). From this technology was born mWater: an organisation created by former NASA engineer, that uses a low-cost water testing kits ($5 per kit), which citizens can use to test water for mainly coliform bacteria, nitrates, and chlorine. Test results can then be uploaded to an app – providing an open source database of water source locations and their safety status, allowing citizens to make more informed decisions on water use (Jnimon 2013).
On a larger scale, UV laser scanners can be used to identify and measure contaminants in wastewater treatment plants. Small, inexpensive spectrometers (devices that use light to determine a sample’s composition) in the deep UV range are sensitive enough to detect bacteria. The work was initiated with the aim of developing instruments for planetary and astrobiology science, with such a laser flying for the first time on Perseverance to spot previously invisible clues in its search for signs of past life on Mars. The technology is now being used extensively in the pharmaceutical, food processing and wastewater treatment industries. Deep UV can identify and measure certain compounds at much lower concentrations than any other method, offering unprecedented precision in quality control (NASA 2021).
Once deep UV spectrometers have identified contaminants, operators can then tailor treatment processes, saving time and money on processes such as ozone infusion and aeration.
Another practical innovation for optimising water treatment is the European Simulation Language (ESL) software package. Developed for ESA to model highly complex systems, the programmes is now being used by water companies to model the filtration process in order to optimise operations of treatment plants, so as to reduce the risk of contamination, specifically of Cryptosporidium (Brisson and Rootes 2001) (Figure 2).
These water testing and treatment optimisation techniques are being used worldwide to improve efficiency and safety. From innovations that were created to benefit the space industry, both within the ISS and on the surface of planets, have come these highly useful spin-offs enabling us to drink cleaner water - reducing disease incidence and improving health on Earth.
Now that we have explored ways of testing water quality and ways of optimising the treatment of poor quality water, what about the process of actually filtering and purifying contaminated water?
This is an area of abundance for spin-off technologies. Over the years, countless innovations have allowed large strides to be made in water filtration due to the absolute need for clean water in space, couple with the weight and space taken up by such resources. With the global water crisis only set to increase, research into water filtration is of paramount importance so that more of our used water can be recycled for re-use, employing a circular economy approach.
Silver, for example, has been used for centuries to purify water. When positively charged silver ions dissolve in water. They bond with and disrupt negatively charged cell membranes of bacteria and other microorganisms, entering, and killing them. Silver ion technology is superior to traditional iodine water treatment, with iodine having to be removed before consumption from the latter. Silver ion biocide technology has been developed to disinfect water through storage and distribution. The developed technology distributes silver ions much more effectively than previous systems and is being found not only on Apollo missions, but increasingly in filtration systems in taps, pools, boilers, spas, and hospitals on Earth (NASA 2021).
Aquaporins are another remarkable water treatment technology. Membranes embedded with the same natural proteins that transport water through the membranes of living cells, aquaporins can transport individual molecules through cell membranes, allowing them to reject contaminants (Aquaporin 2020). The membranes can operate in forward osmosis, extracting fresh water and leaving only waste on the other side. Used in an under-sink filtration system in its first commercial use, they are now being piloted in wastewater treatment plants, showing promising results. A pilot project treating grey water from Ames Research Centre’s Sustainability Base is requiring less energy and maintenance than the building’s previous treatment system (NASA 2021) (Figure 3).
NanoCeram is another water filtration innovation (Figure 4). Commissioned to develop water purification technology for space, a nanomaterials company developed NanoCeram, a filter composed of microscopic alumina fibres. It can remove virtually all contaminants and has larger pores than other filters, which allows higher flow rates and so speeds up the filtration process. The fibres produce a positive charge when water flows through them, trapping bacteria, virus, parasites, and other impurities which generally carry slight negative charges, which are thus absorbed by the alumina (NASA 2009). The filters have been used in water bottles, portable humanitarian units, industrial water purification, and even in a recirculating shower. This newly developed shower starts with less than 1 gallon of water and circulates at 3-5 gallons / minutes, using the NanoCeram filter and UV light to purify the water for reuse (NASA 2021).
Beyond silver ions, aquaporins and alumina fibres, two different projects: ECLSS and MELiSSA have led to vast Earth-based applications.
For purifying air and wastewater into drinking water onboard the ISS, the Environment Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) was developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre. The purification system is composed of a Urine Processing Assembly (UPA), Water Recovery System (WRS), Oxygen Generation System (OGS), Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly (CDRA), and Sabatier Reactor Assembly (SRA). The WRS purifies and filters the water, of which a Microbial Check Valve (MCV) - an iodinated-resin, is a principal component (Bazley 2011) (Figure 5).
Research used in the ECLSS was picked up by an NGO working in Iraq, who utilised the iodinated-resin in a 2000L water tank to deliver fresh water on one of their projects. The iodine controls not only microbial growth but also provides users in iodine-deficient locations with iodine, promoting proper brain function and maintaining bodily hormone levels. This water processing technology has since been deployed in countless filtration systems and wastewater recovery plants, especially in lower-middle income countries (LMIC), refugee camps, and post-disaster settings (NASA et al. 2015).
Furthermore, MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) is the European project of circular life support systems, established to research food, water, and oxygen production from mission wastes (CO2 and minerals) by microorganisms, using light as an energy source. Through the project, organic and ceramic membranes have been created with holes 700 times finer than a strand of human hair, able to filter out unwanted compounds. MELiSSA seeks to perfect a self-sustaining life support system that could be flown in space in the future, supplying astronauts with all their food, water, and oxygen requirements (MELiSSA Foundation n.d.).
Since initiation in 1987, multiple spin off companies and technologies have emerged from MELiSSA for terrestrial applications in order to sustain research funding and for engineering validation (Table 2).
Finally, opinions on desalinisation are mixed. As the process that removes salt from water. It offers unprecedented opportunities to help solve the global water crisis. With approximately 97% of global water resources being in the ocean, the ability to extract salt from water is highly useful. The process, however, is highly energy intensive, expensive, and more polluting than traditional treatment methods. Innovative methods at NASA’s Langley Research Centre have been developed for the bulk preparation of holey carbon allotropes (e.g., nanotubes and graphene) (Figure 8). The new methods generate materials with increased accessible surface area, improved electrochemical performance, and improved through-surface molecular transport properties, whilst eliminating the need for catalysts and solvents. The carbon materials are anticipated to have applications in many industries, one being in desalination, as well is in drug delivery, energy storage, and thermoelectrics. This new technology is on NASA’s radar for showing great potential as becoming a future spinoff success (NASA 2021).
Aside from treating the water we have, finding new water sources is also of paramount importance. Radar sounding technology offers potential in the probing of surfaces in the hope of detecting water. The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) and the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) respectively probe the Martial subsurface sediments and polar ice caps to 3km, and look for liquid or frozen water in the first few hundred feet of Mars’ crust. Both instruments have found evidence of ice in the Martian subsurface (NASA 2011), whilst MARSIS recently discovered three new underground lakes with liquid water near the south pole (Rincon 2020)
This radar sounding technology has been used to create high-resolution maps of freshwater aquifers beneath Kuwait: the first use of airborne sounding radar for aquifer mapping (Figure 9). The radar, attached to a helicopter was flown over two well-known freshwater aquifers, probing the subsurface to depths of 65 m. The work demonstrated that radar could be used to locate subsurface aquifers, probe variations in water table depth, and identify inflow and outflow locations of aquifers, helping to improve drilling accuracy and quantify groundwater processes. This could add to our understanding of climate change by enabling comparisons of aquifers across time, highlighting variations in groundwater storage and associated climatic conditions (NASA 2011).
The global space economy was reported to have reached $423.8 billion in 2020 (Sheetz 2020), most of which is focussed on satellite communications. With over 80 space agencies across the world, the industry appears to be burgeoning. Thanks to the countless spin-off technologies developed over the past decades, investment in space exploration has impacts not only on distant lands, but also on our own. Thanks to the continued innovation and expertise of researchers, engineers, scientists, and the likes, spin off technologies are making significant improvements to our lives. From filtering wastewater to drinking quality grade, to detecting underground aquifers, these innovations offer lifelines to our growing water crisis.