Given the serious social and environmental problems on the planet, some wonder why precious resources are being spent on space research. But many seemingly far-fetched ideas for space have very earth-bound applications.
The technology seems out there, but it has uses closer to home
Temperature fluxuations in outer space are extreme, and swings from minus 160 degrees to 160 degrees on the other side of zero in a short period of time are common. For these kinds of conditions, space scientists have developed special synthetic materials that are light, able to withstand mechanical pressures, and are resistant to bombardments by cosmic particles and other forms of intense radiation.
"These innovative materials help us solve problems on the earth," said Pierre Brisson, head of the Technology Transfer Program of the European Space Agency (ESA). "European industry is very interested in these kinds of high-tech materials."
Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, man on the moon
On the basis of suits for astronauts made with these materials, developers on earth have fashioned protective clothing for pilots, firefighters, rescue service personnel, motorcyclists and divers.
Isolating polymer films, such as that used in space stations, ensure that vacuum chambers in computer tomography devices work correctly, since operating temperatures of minus 270 degrees are not unusual. Carbon fibers that are used in satellite construction are also incorporated into Formula One racing cars, airplanes and industrial robots.
After the severe earthquake that struck the Turkish city of Izmit five years ago, scientists at ESA headquarters in Paris had the idea to use space technology in the construction of a "space house" on earth.
Model of a "space house"
The theory was to use a very light, scallop-shaped plastic design that could withstand strong quakes and wind speeds of up to 220 kilometers per hour. A prototype is now in the planning and scientists hope that the new German Neumayer III station in the Antarctic will be based on the design.
Space research is also opening up new chapters in the fight against cancer. Techniques used by astronomers to use signals from several telescopes to discover the tiniest planets despite the glare from nearby stars, is now being adapted for the early detection of cancer.
Dutch researchers are already using technology developed for ESA's Darwin Mission, which will scan 1,000 stars for nearby planets, to look for the tiniest changes in blood vessels and retinas.
This is not the first time space technology has been used in the fight against cancer. A computer program that searches for the sources of x-rays in the far reaches of the universe has already been modified to look for the very earliest signs of skin cancer.
An artist's impression of a lab in space
The same technology that ensured the air aboard the Russian MIR space station was clean has also been used to filter out viruses, mold, spores and bacteria from the air in hospitals. Scientists hope to use the same concept to dispose of SARS, ebola and tuberculosis pathogens. This system, which uses electric fields and so-called cold-plasma chambers, is already in use at five European hospitals to create germ-free "air zones" over patients' beds.