Scientific research breaks through the commercial limits of space


After bringing a touch of warmth to the cold space cooperation between China and the United States, Deng Yulin, dean of the School of Life Science at the Beijing Institute of Technology, told Finance and Economics reporter that he hoped that this matter would pass quickly so that he could devote himself to follow-up research work.

At the end of July 2015, the Beijing Institute of Technology signed a cooperation agreement with NanoRacks, an American company, to bring one of its life science experiments to the International Space Station for research. Deng Yulin is the Chinese leader of the project.

The International Space Station, which operates in low-Earth orbit, was built by 16 countries and organizations, including the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, Brazil and the European Space Agency, and took nearly 20 years to complete.

At the beginning of the planning of the International Space Station, the United States believed that the space station technology had military applications and opposed inviting China to participate. In 2011, the US Congress passed a law known as the Wolf Clause, which completely prohibits NASA from cooperating or engaging with China, and NASA cannot even receive "official Chinese visitors" at its facilities.

In this context, this life science experiment will be a "historic" breakthrough if it can successfully board the International Space Station.

This is a commercial scientific cooperation, and both partners have stressed that "it should not be raised to a political level." This means that Sino-US cooperation in the space field has not yet thawed.

A hopeless attempt

"It's really going to happen." Said JeffreyManber, managing director of NanoRacks.

NanoRacks is a small, young company, just six years old. It is unique in adapting experimental machinery to support commercial projects on the International Space Station.

Technically, bringing this life science experiment to the International Space Station would not be difficult for NanoRacks. In six years, the small company has sent more than 200 payloads to the International Space Station, including helping a Scottish brewing company send a bottle of single malt whiskey to the station to study the effects of zero-gravity environments and space radiation on whiskey taste.

NASA, the European Space Agency, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), universities in Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Romania and Israel, and even innovative companies such as Planet LABS and Virgin Galactic are NanoRacks customers. However, none of them came from China.

China has first-class research institutions, first-class universities, to do space experiments are not limited to the local test platform, the United States, Russia and European platforms can try. The idea of finding the "right" Chinese institution to work with had been on Manber's mind for a long time. He hopes to break the current ice by bringing in high-quality Chinese research.

After carefully studying the Wolf Clause, NanoRacks concluded that commercial cooperation between China and the United States in the space sector was not prohibited, and consulted with NASA, and was told, "Under the right circumstances, with the right agency, we will approve it."

As a result, NanoRacks began to inquire about potential partners from China in the international aerospace science and technology circle, and the School of Life Science of Beijing Polytechnic was mentioned several times. Coincidentally, at an international space conference held in the second half of 2013, Deng Yulin's team expressed the desire to "think of doing experiments in the sky" in communication with international counterparts, and is looking for opportunities through multiple channels. Thus, the two sides began to contact.

"I just tried without hope." Deng Yulin said that he was aware of the ban of the United States, but his own subject only relies on ground research is not enough, urgently need to land opportunities, and wait for the domestic "Shenzhou" manned spacecraft to fly to the sky is too long.

In the field of space science and research in China, the shortage of space resources has existed for a long time, and many projects are queuing up for several years.

Even if China builds its own space station around 2020, it will only slightly alleviate the current shortage of resources. The International Space Station, which launches frequently, is worth the risk if the US approves it.

NanoRacks went back to the government, and the response was, "It's an appropriate agency." As a result, the two sides officially started to promote cooperation projects. The project aims to observe the effects of radiation on genes in the space environment and the rate at which human DNA changes in the space environment. If the pace of change is too rapid, it could put astronauts in low-Earth orbit for long periods of time at additional risk.

Deng Yulin has been very nervous, or worried about the United States Congress or other countries participating in the International Space Station blocked, "there are indeed other countries expressed different voices." On February 21, 2015, Deng Yulin was very excited when he received a notice from NASA permitting the two sides to cooperate, "The impossible has now been accomplished."

In Deng Yulin's view, the first step was more successful, "the ultimate goal is to get the data, not to make a political show." He urged his partners not to disclose the contract until research was done, but was told the company had a duty to disclose information.

The academic community is optimistic about this cooperation. JoanJohnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College and an expert on national security affairs, said in an interview with the US media that "other countries are cooperating with China in space, and in this case, only the United States is stubborn, it is not good for us." Hopefully, this experiment on the International Space Station is a positive step in the right direction." He believes it is in the U.S. interest to better understand China's decision-making mechanisms and to have China act as a responsible nation in space.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the agreement has potential scientific value and complies with existing regulations. But it is not a prelude to future Sino-American cooperation.

Why do you succeed

If all goes well, in May next year, the experimental device designed by Chinese scientists will be flown to the International Space Station on a SpaceX launch vehicle, and then placed on NanoRacks' platform for a month of experiments.

Few people would care about the sensitivity of a Sino-American life science project, but when the same joint project is put in space, the sensitivity level is elevated.

Manber told Caijing that the US government does not want NanoRacks to work with research institutes affiliated with the Chinese military "because, rightly or wrongly, there are legal restrictions in our country".

The most basic condition for the success of BEIT is that it is academically independent enough and shares its research results with the international research community.

In November 2011, Deng Yulin presided over the development of the "microfluidic chip gene amplification device", which had traveled in space for 17 days with the "Shenzhou" spacecraft. At an altitude of about 350 kilometers and near zero gravity, the experimental device successfully completed the amplification experiment of eight genes.

In appearance, the device is a cube box with a side length of about 20 centimeters, which is very unremarkable. However, the technical content is very high, there are power switches and operation buttons outside the box, and the experiment process is fully automatic operation. Simply put, the microfluidic chip in the box is a miniature laboratory that integrates the steps of sampling, dilution, adding reagents, reaction, separation, and detection on the microchip and can be used multiple times.

This just meets the harsh requirements of space experiments, the sample amount is small, the analysis is fast, the instrument is small and the cost is low. In addition, when liquids are weightless, they float around or stay in one place in a nasty way, obstacles that researchers need to overcome.

The Shenzhou 8 experiment was a success, very close to the preset goal, and Deng Yulin's team published a paper based on the results. Manber believes that for those in the United States who oppose cooperation with China, the publication of the paper on the first space experiment by the Beijing Institute of Technology is very important, which shows an open attitude.

Moreover, microfluidic chip technology is hailed by NASA as the future development direction of space biology experiments. The work of Deng Yulin's team makes China the third country in the world to apply microfluidic chip technology to the space field.

The partner, NanoRacks, has also carved out an unusual niche in the emerging commercial market for developing low-Earth orbit, gaining a competitive monopoly by supplying commercial hardware and services to U.S. national laboratories on the International Space Station.

According to Forbes Chinese edition, all 36 modular laboratories on the International Space Station were designed and built by NanoRacks. It has also helped equip the ISS with two microscopes and a centrifuge capable of simulating gravitational conditions such as the moon and Mars.

Still, the two sides have a lot of ground to cover before next year's launch. The experimental equipment for landing on the International Space Station will be greatly improved on the original basis: the experimental design is much more complicated than the previous one, and it is estimated that it will be increased from the appearance size alone; At the same time, it must strictly abide by the standards of the International Space Station, and restrict the weight, volume and even power consumption of the device. In addition, all control interfaces must be docked to the specifications of the International Space Station.

Deng Yulin's computer was specially installed with high-definition cameras in order to carry out network meetings with American collaborators. Whenever there is a certain progress in the work, "team members will gather in my office to explain, and communicate with each other in various aspects." He is now concerned about whether the sky can successfully do the experiment, successfully get the data back, and follow-up data analysis tasks are not light.

Business in space

Summarizing the experience, the consensus of the Chinese and American partners is that under the current situation, space scientific research projects will definitely not work through the way of Sino-US intergovernmental cooperation, but it will be bright if they are operated according to the commercial model. Moreover, the project has nothing to do with high-tech leaks. As the space station is a special resource, the fundamental solution is to deploy resources through international cooperation and market-oriented means.

Under the partnership, the Chinese team will pay $200,000 to NanoRacks, which will be responsible for sending the test device to the International Space Station, setting it up, and activating it.

After the experiments aboard the space station are completed, NanoRacks will send data back to Chinese researchers. The charging standard is determined according to the time spent in the experiment, the size of the experimental device, and the electricity consumption. In addition, NanoRacks service specifications, some important matters will be proactively reminded, such as the next step, NanoRacks will discuss with the Chinese side to buy space insurance, to avoid the risk of launch failure, the insurance premium is usually 5%-8% of the launch cost.

In Deng's view, the cooperation is really a good deal.

A Chinese source said that $200,000 is the price announced by both sides, and the actual service fee will be very favorable. Because NanoRacks attaches great importance to the development of the Chinese market, it is determined to win the first cooperation.

NanoRacks has also taken innovative steps to reduce the cost of conducting scientific research in space, demonstrating that it is possible for startups to do space transportation more safely and cheaply than governments.

Karl Bergquist, administrator of the International Relations Department of the European Space Agency, told the Finance reporter that the competition in the space business field is very fierce, and several companies from different countries share this market together, and are trying to increase their market share. Under this pressure, they are constantly reducing costs and increasing services, so that non-commercial space programs such as space technology and exploration missions also benefit.

Aboard the International Space Station to do experiments, is undoubtedly the dream of all space life science researchers. As a space power, China's market in the commercial space field is far from being explored.

With this first collaboration with a Chinese institution, Manber hopes to make NanoRacks' name known to Chinese researchers and, better yet, widely known in Asia.

In fact, both Russian and European space service providers are eyeing the Chinese market. This makes Manber feel pressure, he said, "the Wolf clause is a burden on our industry", from the perspective of market competition, the bill should be amended.

The commercial space market of the future will also be like the aviation industry, where space will not only serve the needs of governments, but also serve the needs of businesses, industries, research institutions and universities. "Space is just another area where you can do business." "Mr. Manber said.

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