Protein from human ear to power space exploration

The discarding of NASA's space fleet is characteristic of the dramatic stall in space exploration. Keith Connolly writes about a scientific development that could well re-energise the situation, literally.
Space exploration was at its pinnacle in late 1960's when Neil Armstrong made his fateful strides upon the lunar surface. It was the culmination of many years of gruelling work schedules and laborious theorisation, which had allowed the United States to win the ‘space race' to the moon, having lost the race to the stratosphere. The space project had begun in earnest when John F Kennedy introduced measures to direct American vision towards the stars and subsequently away from the Cold War and its hostile face, the Vietnam condition. The escalation in the space program continued from this evident success and over the course of the next quarter of a century NASA organised many manned missions and reconnaissance flights to varying degrees of success as it strode ahead of its cold war rival with the aid of economic benefits that allowed the western victors invest in technology to both control space and the new classes of warfare.

The end of the Regan era, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and cold war, and the return to local economic interests for the United States saw the rolling back of space exploration as funding returned to a more controlled level. The extensive advancements being made up to this point also slowed down as scientific minds turned to new fields of interest. The catastrophic final Apollo missions amongst other troublesome developments in shuttle launching exposed the space program to the wrath of the public as popular opinion melted away from the earlier successes and the unifying nationalism of Kennedy's original purpose, and the people began to fear for the safety of their astronauts. Scaling down of the program continued until the final announcement from NASA that they were discontinuing their entire manned space fleet, which would be entirely discarded by 2010. The use of mechanical vessels and reconnaissance probes became the new avenue of explorative endeavour.

It was not to be the end of ‘manned missions to the stars' as the international space station was still in development but it was certainly a dramatic reduction in the US program. There were other difficulties involved in the scaling down: Space exploration has always been hindered by power supply issues, especially with regard to the weight load these units take up when launching vessels. The mentioned international space station was designed to improve this situation as less ‘launches' would be required as the material would be provided outside the earth's atmosphere. However, more was needed, as energy issues became a fundamental barrier to lengthy manned missions in outer space. Scientists have made up some ground with regard to this problem by looking, not to physical theorising as has usually been the case, but towards the most successful home for energy production, the biological world.

The biological world is a vast array of complex engineering, which have been designed over millennia of natural selection, as nature allows only the most adept life forms to survive. It has resulted in brilliantly industrious organisms that are highly proficient energy producers who need very little assistance to create their own power. Biological organisms also have the extremely useful quality of being appropriately light in terms of their weight and become more prevalent for use in space exploration as a result.

Scientists have begun the first steps to incorporate biological engineering into the technological world with the aid of the human body. Cambridge based scientists have located a protein, found in the human ear, which converts electronic voltage (from the waves omitted in speech and sound) into a motion to better feed your hearing mechanism. The process is very quick and highly complex but without the protein's procedure our hearing would be infinitely less qualified. The end result of this operation is a vibration that can be picked up by the inner ear and formulated into a recognisable biological language for communication with the brain. The Cambridge scientists managed to isolate this instance and work out the process. However, the real benefit to their discovery was that this protein (called Prestin) contains the ability to reverse the above transaction as described, and hence create an electronic voltage (energy) from a motion or vibration. The finding stands as a form of motion sensitive energy production, on an infinitely miniscule stage, where such tiny biological procedures could possibly be grouped together to power an actual battery supply.

There are a number of uses for this new technology, not least alternative energy sourcing; however the Cambridge scientists have directed their results towards a specific path with regard to space exploration. The hope is that using current techniques in nano-technological materials scientists believe that these proteins could probably be grouped into a host gel-like or textile substance that could be formed as an outer shell to a standard space suit. The astronaut's normal movements within the suit could then initiate the biological reaction and create energy which would be stored within the astronaut's battery packs – therefore allowing a self-productive energy source to accompany extra-vehicular missions. This particular area is one of the most difficult trials for NASA's explorative undertakings and the new energy source could improve their situation quite dramatically, if not profoundly.

Another prospective use for this new technology would be in future attempts to terraform a planet like Mars; much energy would be required to ensure that land bases on the planet where sufficiently powered to allow the terraformers to achieve their goal. The Cambridge scientists believe that this new technology could be integrated into an exoskeleton that would cover the structures built on the planet to create energy from the massively powerful atmospheric weather that inundates Mars. The exoskeleton would also have the added bonus of being self-healing, as it is an organism, and could regenerate under even the most extreme conditions. If this technology works to the level that scientists foresee the possibilities for inhabiting our nearest planetary neighbour increase exponentially, as once again a lack of energy supply is a fundamental impediment for human designs on terraforming.

The scientific community has displayed much excitement with regard to this new technology and hopes are hinged on the outcome of a final set of experiments to assess the accuracy of the Cambridge contingents original results; however, confidence is high in the scientific community that a new source of energy manufacture has actually been discovered, with the potential to revolutionise the production of power on a global scale (recalling that current alternative energy sources on Earth would themselves be improved by the new technology). If this is the case one of the major inhibitors for space exploration has been disregarded leaving lack of sufficient propulsion as the only significant impediment to future astronauts completing the long imagined ideal of actually standing on the surface of Mars.