The Star Malaysia - Star2
We come in peace and curiosity
“THAT’S one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”.
Many would be familiar with these words by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to walk on the moon. Outer space and the universe have for generations intrigued humanity, exposed new mysteries, sparked an unending list of studies and been the inspiration behind countless cinematic and literary marvels.
With the availability of more advanced technology, humankind’s obsession with space has grown deeper over the years and activities such as space exploration have only intensified with countries including the United States, Russia and China battling to outdo each other in sending more missions into space and uncovering new breakthroughs.
However, what good comes out of such activities? Can understanding the chemical composition of distant planets and the formation of black holes and the birth of stars provide useful information that could benefit humanity?
To infinity and beyond
Long before Yuri Gagarin or Laika was sent to orbit the planet, astrologers looked to the skies, documenting their observations and theories.
Although names such as Ptolemy, Aristotle, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Charles Messier may not exactly be household names, their earliest observations are no doubt familiar to many – these include the movement of the planetary system, the four primary moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.
The discoveries by these esteemed astrologers are not only the foundations of modern space research but are now considered general knowledge and the very basics of school science textbooks.
It is undeniable that some of this knowledge has impacted the way people live; for example the Gregorian calendar that was based on solar patterns.
Since then, new information of space is constantly made known to the public and any findings released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) such as images from the Hubble space telescope attract wide media coverage.
Human see, human do
While many people will continue to be in awe and have wonder towards space exploration and studies, there are always those who believe such activities are a waste of money, an environmental nuisance and the information learnt can be of no use to humankind.
What more when a single space shuttle according to Nasa costs approximately US$1.7bil (RM7.225bil) to build and US$450mil (RM1912.5mil) to launch. These large figures include the use of up to 730,000kg of propellant or more than three million litres of fuel for a single space mission.
Between 2007 and 2013, The Washington Post reported that the annual budget allocated for space programmes in the US averaged US$40bil (RM170bil) covering areas such as research, exploration, cross-agency support, aeronautics and education.
Though interestingly, this budget only represents roughly 0.25% of the country's gross domestic product.
Fact of the matter is that such explorations and costs are vital for the continuous existence of humankind. Much of the work conducted in outer space has a lot to do with studying Earth’s air quality, climate change, alternative energy and atmospheric conditions.
Moreover, with global populations surpassing 7.5 billion people and the unhealthy environmental circumstances affecting many countries as a result of rapid development and pollution, the idea of space colonisation is beginning to look like an inevitable progression instead of a plot from a science-fiction movie.
Among the reasons Nasa heavily devotes its time and energy into studying space is because comets, asteroids and dwarf planets provide clues to where water and the Earth’s raw materials come from, shedding light on what it takes for life to develop on a planet.
By collecting space samples, scientists also hope to find new resources that can be used on Earth that may provide cleaner energy outputs to help protect the environment.
Assoc Prof Ir Dr Mandeep Singh from the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment at The National University of Malaysia (more commonly known by its Bahasa Malaysia acronym UKM) shares another example of how space research can be useful on Earth.
“One study is to see the effects of microgravity on astronauts’ bone development, leading to assist in the treatment of patients with osteoporosis and metabolic bone disorders under the Mechanical Response Tissue Analysis (MRTA).”
The most important reason, however, is to detect potential cosmic threats or planetary collisions before such calamities wipe out the entire human race.
It is a widely known theory that dinosaurs were made extinct after giant asteroids landed on the planet and caused catastrophic climate changes.
As cosmic collisions are indeed natural, researchers see a great need to ensure humans avoid the same fate. Suddenly, scenes from Michael Bay’s movie Armageddon starring Bruce Willis may not be too far-fetched after all.
Though space research is often focused on future outcomes, many people do not realise that much of the development that goes into supplying astronauts with the right tools and equipment can be adapted for use on Earth.
One example is the use of inflated anti-gravity suits or G-suits that have been retrofitted with hospital gas supply cylinders to decrease bleeding and rapidly shift needed blood – a process known as autotransfusion -– from the legs and lower body towards the heart and brain to treat haemorrhage or dehydration.
The Nasa-derived LifeWrap has already proven to reduce postpartum haemorrhage-caused mortality by 50% both in advanced and developing countries.
Another helpful instrument is based on the Tunable Laser Spectrometer that was fitted on a rover sent to Mars to detect methane gases.
With funding from firms such as Southern California Gas Company and Chevron in the US, a more compact and portable version was created to help energy and utility workers detect underground pipe leaks that are potentially dangerous to humans and contribute to global warming.
For the general public, a company called Salt Cases in America developed protective cases for iPhones, iPads and MacBooks using space blanket heat sheet technology that shields the gadgets from extreme temperature changes.
With space agencies such as Nasa willingly collaborating with universities and firms, new innovative products are constantly being designed and tested, eventually making its way to the market.
Every year, Nasa highlights technologies that are benefiting life on Earth in the form of commercial products through its own publication, Spinoff.
The publication has profiled almost 2,000 products since its initial print in 1976.
Len Rosen, administrator and creator of 21st Century Tech Blog said on his website, “For every dollar invested by the government, the American economy and other countries have seen a US$7 (RM29.75) to US$14 (RM59.5) rise in revenue, all from spinoffs and licensing arrangements.
Resistance is futile
Though a few countries are truly ahead in terms of expertise and experience in space activities, it does not stop smaller nations such as Malaysia from getting in on the act, albeit with a little international assistance.
In 1996, the nation ventured into new territory with the Malaysia East Asia Satellites or MEASAT-1 and MEASAT-2.
The satellites were launched to enhance the nation’s infrastructure and regional communications, providing directto-home television service as well as general communication services.
These activities were not only a success but a beginning of a new industry. Currently with a fleet of six satellites, MEASAT Global Berhad is a premium supplier of communication services to leading broadcasters and telecommunication operators across 150 countries.
Besides the transmission of information through Internet, radio and television, the development of satellites also helps scientists to predict and assess weather, enabling humans to prepare for natural disasters such as flood and drought.
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As Malaysia continued to push for development, the interest in space activities and its related technology began to gain traction, signalling the introduction of courses such as aerospace engineering and astronautics in Malaysian universities such as Universiti Putra Malaysia and UKM.
By 2002, the National Space Agency (ANGKASA) was established with the mandate to formulate policies and regulations, coordinate, monitor and implement space activities in Malaysia.
The agency’s vision is to harness space as a platform for knowledge generation, wealth creation and societal well-being.
Not only does Malaysia have healthy relationships with space research organisations in other countries, the Angkasawan Programme inspired young children and youth to recognise space-related research as a viable career option.
Live long and prosper
For obvious reasons, the acceptance of space activity and exploration in Malaysia reached its peak when Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor became the first Malaysian to go into space through an agreement with Russia.
After going through the Angkasawan Programme and an intensive training stint, Dr Muszaphar spent nine days aboard the International Space Station, performing experiments relating to the characteristics and growth of liver and leukaemia cells and the crystallisation of various proteins and microbes in the weightlessness of space.
He also carried out experiments for the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on the effects of microgravity and solar radiation on an astronaut’s body system. The results of these experiments will benefit both general science and medical research.
At present, the outcome of Malaysia’s endeavours in space research has already resulted to patent filings locally as well as in the US, publications in peer-reviewed journals and presentations at international space conferences.
ANGKASA’s mission to use space technology and sciences to help various aspects of the nation’s economy, sovereignty and foreign policies has been achieved.
Not only does Malaysia have healthy relationships with space research organisations in other countries but inspired young children and youth to recognise space-related research as a viable career option.
Use the force
Like all research activities, it takes time, patience, funding, countless trials, expertise and troubleshooting before yielding the desired results or a viable prototype.
Taking for example the Large Hadron Collider, the largest and most complexed research facility in the world required an abundant resource before it was able to prove theories related to the collision of particles and the Big Bang.
This project required years of planning, a circular 27km long tunnel under the Swiss-French border, up to 10,000 scientists and a building cost of up to 10.4bil Swiss franc (RM44.88bil).
Yet, these activities are necessary as the outcomes pave the way for further advancement in science and technology, subsequently benefitting humanity through better tools, gadgets and machinery for daily life.
In terms of satellites for Malaysia, Assoc Prof Mandeep explains the development of such technology will help the nation in its various economic industries, including security, forestry, mapping, agriculture and fisheries.
“There are many uses of space science such as in the development of farming and crop selections and determining the sowing and planting seasons.
“Observations on the movements of the sun and moon are also useful in the fisheries industry. In the field of defence, the use of satellites is useful in communications technology, ground control systems, signals, and navigation, search and rescue,” he says.
All information gathered from space activity will contribute to the general understanding of existence, both past and future.
Thus, a persistent effort in space study and exploration is paramount to benefit humankind as a whole.