Curse those terrestrial scientists!

Regular readers of the Space Cynics blog will know that I am no fan of the ISS, that great $100 billion albatross that continues to follow that perverse government version of Newton’s Law: a program in motions tends to remain in motion.

Defenders of ISS often trot out a range of highly dubious rationales for building and maintaining ISS, ranging from the scientific (e.g., protein crystal growth) to the economic (e.g., think of all the great tech transfer that will result, such as velcro and tang!) to the fanciful (it inspires humanity). I’ll just ignore that last category.

Ironically, a group of scientists may have also put a nail firmly in the coffin of the “pure protein crystal” crowd – by demonstrating the ability to use magnetic fields to create ultrapure protein crystals.

They were even able to create a sort of negative gravity and make the growth plume travel downwards.

“The authors of the paper have a technique that can produce the same effects of microgravity on crystal growth in a much more controlled manner than could ever be achieved on the the International Space Station,” says Edward Snell, a structural biologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo, US.

What’s more, the technique will be faster and much cheaper than growing crystals in space, he says.

For more, read the following:

New Scientist

9 thoughts on “Curse those terrestrial scientists!

  1. Shubber,
    Interesting read. I think I had heard similar reports a while ago. I wonder how well this specific technique does for other potential microgravity research/processing areas. Ie does this technique only allow for microgravity-like protein crystal growth? Or does it also work for say growing large semiconductor crystals or for making bulk amorphous metal alloys that can’t be made in normal gravity? Definitely worth some more reading.

    On another note, while I definitely wholeheartedly agree that ISS is an unjustifiable waste, I don’t necessarily think that all microgravity research is bunk. But until we come up with ways to reduce the cost, increase the frequency, and decrease the red-tape associated with microgravity research, we’ll continue seeing more and more money poured into terrestrial alternatives. Even then, you’ll still likely see some terrestrial alternatives win out in the long run, but I think that with a more research/business-friendly microgravity research environment, you’d start seeing a lot more development along those lines. It’s just flat out impossible to compete with the rate of innovation in terrestrial research when you’re talking about a lab where you may only get one shot a year (if you’re lucky) at running a few experiments.


  2. Hate to post another comment so soon, but I thought it worth saying that even though this may seem like bad news to us space nerds, it’s definitely good news whenever people come up with cheaper, better ways to deliver needed products. It shouldn’t need to be said, but we don’t have any god-given right to the microgravity research market, and if we can’t find a way to do it better and more cost effectively than terrestrial alternatives, that’s our problem.

    All that said, I wouldn’t count the whole field of commercial microgravity research and processing out by any stretch of the imagination.


  3. NASA also claims to have invented the microprocessor as well. Luckily for them neither Jack Kilby nor Robert Noyce are available any more for comment.

  4. Wow, who would have thought that the necessity of removing the burden of a high cost capability would be the mother of a lower cost invention?

    I wonder how long it will be before other ‘reasons’ for doing research in orbit are replaced by a lower cost terrestrial solution

  5. “I wonder how long it will be before other ‘reasons’ for doing research in orbit are replaced by a lower cost terrestrial solution”

    Think “painted on solar cells” as a cheap, highly individualized, global alternative to SSPS.

  6. It doesn’t really matter what the tech is. If the ground segment, structure, transmission equipment, assembly, launch and maintenance of an SSPS costs any more than three times the cost of the panels on their own, it’s cheaper to deploy those very same panels on the ground.

  7. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The grotesque over-selling of ISS’ research potential tells us not that there’s no worthwhile research to be done in orbit, but that CATS has to come first.

  8. I’ve been advocating just this diamagnetic technique for some years now, on various online forums. Yes, that and $4 will get me a mocha vente at Starbucks. 🙂

    It does seem that many of the hyped uses of microgravity/LEO for manufacturing have been shot down by cheaper terrestrial alternatives. Remember how CFE was going to make EPO? EPO’s been on the market for years now, with no microgravity needed. Or the Wake Shield facility for growing gallium arsenide? Terrestrial production was orders of magnitude cheaper.

    Space cynicism is richly justified when the people promoting the expensive space techniques are largely those feeding at the space trough.

  9. Oh wait. Yes, I have. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have it in me right now to type it all out again. Besides, it was just ramblings anyway. You didn’t want to hear me go on and on about this, right?

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