Media Lab Research Takes Flight




Self-assembly construction, soft robotics, space debris reduction, satellite data for public health policy, insect life cycles, gastronomy, arts in microgravity. Just a sampling of the breadth of space research underway at the MIT Media Lab.

This week, as Media Lab researchers lead keynotes, plenary sessions, and workshops at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Ascend conference, the Media Lab's distinctive contributions to the space sector will be on display.

Over the past few years, space research at the Media Lab has visibly flourished, driven by both faculty and student initiatives. The multidisciplinary approach that so characterizes the Lab is now seamlessly lending itself to space research—from exploring the ways people can live, thrive, and build communities in space, to programs for protecting the space environment and to tools for enhanced wellbeing, social engagement, productivity, and sustainability.

The resulting research has already led to a slew of zero-gravity flight payloads of early-stage research projects, as well as experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). Media Lab researchers are also challenging the many ways that entrenched engineering and R&D practices within the space sector impact communities around the world, with a focus on the development of new models for economic, social, gender, and racial equity and justice.

Leading the Way with Gender and Racial Equity

One unique facet of the Media Lab's space research is how much of it is led by a diverse group of female scientists. They join along the path of prominent female space researchers at MIT such as Sheila Widall, Maria Zuber, Dava Newman, Kerri Cahoy, Julie Shah, Sara Seager, Nancy Leveson, and Carmen Guerra-Garcia, trailblazers in a sector long dominated by men. Media Lab research and project leads include Danielle Wood, head of the Space Enabled research group; Ariel Ekblaw, director of the Space Exploration Initiative; and Pattie Maes, head of the Fluid Interfaces research group. 

"The research I lead to promote sustainability, social equity, and economic justice on Earth and in space is also launching the careers of a diverse group of graduate students and researchers who are becoming dynamic leaders, including the 10 women of color I have mentored in just these past three years," notes Assistant Professor Danielle Wood, who will host and moderate a conversation at Ascend's opening ceremonies with Secretary of the US Air Force Barbara Barrett and Marillyn Hewson, Chairman of the Board of Lockheed Martin.  

As head of the Media Lab's Space Enabled research group, Wood combines research methods from design, arts, social science, engineering, and computer science. Current projects include efforts designing space systems that are accessible to new space nations; prototyping earth observation services that support the Global Goals for Sustainable Development; and work by Dr. Katlyn Turner studying how engineers can use systems thinking to design technology that contributes to racial equity. In addition, the group was recently awarded a $450,000 grant from NASA to test the feasibility of using beeswax as a satellite fuel, a project being developed by Dr. Keith Javier Stober and Dr. Gladys Ngetich.

Among the projects Space Enabled is presenting at AIAA Ascend is work by Professor Wood and Dr. Minoo Rathnasabapathy to collaborate on the creation of a Space Sustainability Rating, an incentive system that will reward satellite operators who take action to reduce satellite collisions. 

Another team, the Media Lab's Space Exploration Initiative (SEI)—founded and led by Ariel Ekblaw while she was still a PhD student at the Lab—has drawn enthusiastic participation from students, staff, and faculty across the Media Lab's 22 research groups. 

SEI works to forge connections with MIT's foundational space research departments, as well as with NASA and key players in the commercial sector, including Blue Origin and NanoRacks. Over a few short years, SEI has initiated and led the launch of more than two dozen early-stage research prototypes on zero-gravity flights to stress-test the effects of microgravity, and a number of projects have also reached the ISS for further research. SEI is also collaborating with the Open Lunar Foundation and the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to prepare lunar payloads in this decade, and enable information sharing across the space industry for sustainable lunar activity.

"The Media Lab's list of academic and research projects, peer-reviewed publications, and recent grant awards will continue to help put the Lab on the map as a NASA- and ESA-vetted organization doing serious space research," said Ekblaw.  "The SEI is committed to serving the space community across MIT as we aim to democratize access to space exploration."

As an Initiative, SEI operates with Media Lab and MIT faculty oversight and mentoring, overseen by Professor Joseph Paradiso, head of the Media Lab's Responsive Environments group. Paradiso's group is also working on a number of space-related textile and sensor projects, including the development of electronic space fabrics, research led by PhD student Juliana Cherston in collaboration with MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering and MIT's Chemistry department. The project has received grant support from the ISS National Lab, and unpowered samples of the materials are currently undergoing early resiliency testing aboard the ISS.

The Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces group, led by Professor Pattie Maes, has not historically had a focus on space research. But the group's dexterity at inventing novel tools and wearable devices for human augmentation inevitably led a number of students in the group to space research. A recently awarded four-year NASA grant, for example, is now funding a collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital to develop wearable devices to help measure and optimize human productivity in space. The project is based on research started by Fluid Interfaces researcher Nataliya Kos'myna to develop novel brain computer interfaces for measuring cognitive load, fatigue, engagement, and focus. NASA funding has also propelled other space-related projects in the group including wearables for continuous monitoring of the body's biosignals, and for reducing cybersickness.

"On-body devices have the potential to help with tracking astronaut health, wellbeing, and performance on a moment-by-moment basis," notes Maes. "Equally important, these wearables can provide intervention when support is needed, such as via chemical stimulation or electrical stimulation, or adjustments to surrounding audio and light."

Research and Impact

Though the Media Lab is still relatively new to the field of space research, it's already making inroads in the democratization and access of space exploration, and contributing to the creativity, breadth, and social equity of space research.

"We have the opportunity to design a future on Earth and in space that enables people, cultures, and planets to thrive," concludes Danielle Wood. "Research inspired by space reminds us to keep innovating, to stay humble, and to consider the gifts we can share with future generations of voyagers on Earth and beyond."

For a fuller view of Media Lab space projects and collaborations, please check out this compilation

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