Only 6% of space enthusiasts would like to live in the first low-Earth orbit settlements

A new survey has found that only 6% of respondents would be happy to live in a proposed Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) settlement, where humans live in a small cruise ship-like space station at a similar orbit to the ISS.

Four conditions were set for respondents to assess and while at least 30% said they agree with at least one of them, the number shrank significantly when it came to those who could accept all the conditions.

These were that the settlement itself would require permanent residence, would be no bigger than a large cruise ship, would contain no more than 500 people and would require residents to be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to move in.

The example settlement used in the survey is Kalpana Two, pictured, a conceptual cylindrical space habitat visualised by Brian Versteeg. Measuring 110 m x 110m it would rotate to provide simulated gravity on the “ground” and zero-gravity near the cylinder’s core where occupants can ‘fly’, and would be capable of housing 500 – 1,000 people

The study, conducted by researchers from San Jose State University (SJSU) and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) sought to assess the desirability of such a settlement. Previous similar studies had suggested early space settlements would need to be significantly smaller than believed, and located far closer to Earth.

The research was conducted via an Internet survey made available to the public between 8 January 2016 and 17 June 2016. The survey, using Qualtrics software, received 1,075 responses and was distributed via an email list, social media and spac- related organisations. It should therefore be noted that the respondents are not representative of the general population: 95% actually identified as space enthusiasts.

“95% of respondents were self-described space enthusiasts and 81% were male. 70% were from North America and 20% from Europe,” the study authors Al Globus, from SJSU, and Tom Marotta, from AST, wrote in the research paper.

“This is not surprising as the authors made no attempt to select a random sample of any particular group, but rather to simply distribute the survey as widely as we could.”

Kalpana Two, the conceptual space station the survey was based on. Images courtesy of Brian Versteeg

The paper itself is rather enthusiastic about the 6% figure, pointing out that while it is a low percentage of those who responded, if considering it 6% of those who globally identify as “space enthusiasts” there are likely more than enough to fill these early settlements.  The authors also acknowledge that such a number is not all that surprising given the demands of the move.

However, while the enthusiasm and optimism is laudable, it’s worth noting that those principally willing to give up the most were small in number and tended to fall on the wealthier spectrum. So while the possibility of the project exists, it seems that, as with all commercial space projects so far, it would principally have to cater to the rich.

Moreover, when responding to the main attraction of life in space, “the most common remark was simply that it was ‘in space’ not any particular characteristic of living in space”. There seems in the responses to be a certain enthusiasm that may not hold up in the actual moment of decision.

The fact that people like the idea of living in space is no surprise; the survey however does little to assuage the realities of the situation. Enthusiasm is promising, however the main result of this survey seems to be that blind optimism is only truly backed up by vast amounts of money.

Off-Earth drug manufacturing a step closer with space launch

A research project into off-earth digital chemistry is set to begin shortly, following a successful space launch today. The DIDO2 nano-satellite contains materials that will allow the research team to remotely test the ability to use digital chemistry to create drugs and materials as required, rather than launch payloads requiring specific medications.

The experiment was designed by Professor Lee Cronin, the University of Glasgow’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, and will involve the team remotely activating a microfluidic device inside the satellite which will bring together chemical agents. The researchers will then be able to watch the agents react via an onboard microscope.

The experiment builds on previous work by the Cronin Group to digitise chemistry and allow for the on-demand ‘printing’ of a vast array of chemical compounds.

The DIDO2 nano-satellite being loaded before launch. Image courtesy of SpacePharma

“This is a fantastic opportunity to literally take the Cronin Group’s research to new heights. Low- and zero-gravity environments offer a wide range of new opportunities for science, and we’re excited to see how this experiment progresses,” said Cronin.

“Imagine you are on living on Mars and you need access to a drug that you have not taken with you, this approach might allow you to use a digital blueprint and make the drug on demand from a minimal set of chemicals.

“This collaboration is exciting since we are going to be able to do a digitally controlled chemical experiment in space that produces a complex organic molecule that is part of a class of anti-cancer drugs under study in my laboratory. We chose this molecule as it complex one-pot three step assembly and ends by producing the drug candidate in highly pure crystalline form.”

The launch of the satellite. Image courtesy of Indian Space Research Organisation

If successful, the experiment will take a big step closer to manufacturing drugs off-Earth. Not only would such a capability greatly enhance any future manned space exploration or colonisation, but the medical possibilities of development in microgravity are numerous. In terms of exploration specifically, however, launch payloads’ efficiency would be greatly increased by the ability to manufacture on demand rather than dragging up vast numbers of specific medicines.

The current mission will be looking to form crystals of a drug currently being developed for use as a possible anti-cancer treatment. In the future, however, the technology could allow astronauts to create essentially any kind of medication they may require. Given the push towards manned Mars exploration, the capability to craft on-demand medicine will be crucial in the coming years.

The mission was one of 103 launched into space this morning on an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rocket and is part of the ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle programme. The launch was developed in partnership with SpacePharma, a company which specialises in providing scientists with access to microgravity environments, and was successfully completed just before 4am GMT/ 9am local time at Sriharikota.