Space Technology Helps Save Lives On Earth

By Roland Piquepaille

Technology developed for space travel has been adapted for uses on Earth for a long time. But today, three articles report that some current customizations can save lives. For example, writes that space technology is entering hospitals. It says that a system originally intended to keep clean the space station Mir, and later the International Space Station (ISS), is now used in hospitals to build temporary 'clean rooms' -- virtually bacteria-free -- around patients. And a video infrared camera developed by NASA's JPL to study Earth is being modified into a brain scanning device searching for tumors. Elsewhere, National Geographic is saying that satellites are starting to aid earthquake predictions. And ESA's satellites are looking at the 'rogue' monster waves which have has sunk many of the 200 supertankers and container ships exceeding 200 meters in length during the last two decades.

Developed for ground-use by the France-based firm AirInSpace, the Immunair portable clean room is an evolution of the Plasmer device originally constructed by Russian engineers to protect the air breathed by Mir cosmonauts from biological contamination.
Plasmer air scrubbers pass contaminated air through a series of strong electric fields and cold-plasma chambers to collect and kill bacteria, molds, fungi and other microorganisms. Bulky versions of the device were first invented in the 1990s and installed first on Mir in 1997 and then aboard the Russian Zvezda module of the ISS in April 2001.
With support from ESA, which provided market research, funds and the industrial suppliers, AirInSpace successfully created the portable Immunair that can be folded and wheeled through hospital corridors like an elementary school blackboard, then set up around an individual patient's bed.
The Immunair in use Here is a deployed Immunair in use in the intensive care unit of the Calmette hospital in Lille, France (Credit: Airinspace). also says that NASA's JPL engineers teamed with neurosurgeons to modify their infrared cameras normally used to study the Earth into scanners that will isolate brain tumors from surrounding brain tissue.

Brain tumors run slightly hotter than their surrounding tissue due to their differing metabolic level, said the study's lead scientist Babek Kateb, a research fellow at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine.
By tracking that thermal difference, surgeons will be able to determine definite boundaries between diseased tumor cells and normal brain matter.
Using a quantum well infrared photodetector (QWIP), the JPL camera is sensitive enough to catch even the smallest variation in temperature -- just one hundredth of a degree Celsius -- in brain tissue, said Sarath Gunapala, the camera's lead engineer at JPL. The imager also is strong enough to provide high-definition television (HDTV) quality imagery at sensitivities down to about two cells, he added.

Lives are saved in hospitals every day, but many are lost worldwide because of earthquakes. It's almost impossible to predict when and where an earthquake will take place, but the application of an emerging satellite technology "could advance earthquake science towards a better predictive capability," says National Geographic.

The system, known as the Global Earthquake Satellite System, or GESS, employs a technology called interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR). Put simply, the high-tech mouthful allows scientists to detect minute deformations in the Earth's crust.
In theory, knowing how and where the Earth's crust is deforming over time, combined with knowledge of how earthquakes work, could give scientists a clue that an earthquake is imminent.
Max Wyss directs the World Agency of Planetary Monitoring and Earthquake Risk Reduction in Geneva, Switzerland. Wyss said that InSAR "is a great new technology that allows us to illuminate the surface of the planet and map the deformation that happens. And it is very reasonable that Earth deformation may happen before an earthquake."
But he also cautioned that the InSAR technique can be seen as "clutching at straws" because there is little evidence that the Earth actually deforms before a major earthquake.

Severe weather can also affect oceans and kill many lives. The European Space Agency is trying to help with new satellite imaging methods.

Once dismissed as a nautical myth, freakish ocean waves that rise as tall as ten-storey apartment blocks have been accepted as a leading cause of large ship sinkings. Results from ESA's ERS satellites helped establish the widespread existence of these 'rogue' waves and are now being used to study their origins.
Severe weather has sunk more than 200 supertankers and container ships exceeding 200 metres in length during the last two decades. Rogue waves are believed to be the major cause in many such cases.
The Immunair in use Here is shown bow damage received by Norwegian tanker Wilstar in 1974: the combination of pitch motion and a steep incoming wave can cause excessive local structural damage. One of the aims of rogue wave research is to recommend changes in ship design to make them less vulnerable in future. (Credits: legend from ESA, photo from DLR).
In December 2000 the European Union initiated a scientific project called MaxWave to confirm the widespread occurrence of rogue waves, model how they occur and consider their implications for ship and offshore structure design criteria. And as part of MaxWave, data from ESA's ERS radar satellites were first used to carry out a global rogue wave census.

Please read the ESA's news rellease to discover how their satellites successfully identified more than ten individual giant waves around the globe above 25 meters in height. But what's next? You guess it, forecasting.

"Having proved they existed, in higher numbers than anyone expected, the next step is to analyse if they can be forecasted," said Wolfgang Rosenthal, who headed the three-year MaxWave project. "MaxWave formally concluded at the end of last year although two lines of work are carrying on from it -- one is to improve ship design by learning how ships are sunk, and the other is to examine more satellite data with a view to analysing if forecasting is possible."

The above quotes are too short. You need to read the articles mentioned above to realize how all these bleeding edge technologies can really help us on Earth.

Sources: Tariq Malik,, July 21, 2004; John Roach, for National Geographic News, July 21, 2004; ESA news release, July 21, 2004

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