Technology Day 2023: Full Program
Please welcome to the stage MIT Alumni Association CEO, Whitney Espich. [APPLAUSE] Welcome. Good morning, everyone. Really great to see you all. It's wonderful to be sharing the same space with so many of you. Did you see what I did there? Space, that's our theme.
Let's get with it, yes. All right, wonderful to be sharing the same space with so many of you. As nice as it is to be in-person, when we needed to be remote over the last few years, MIT navigated that better than most.
And we're sticking with it. Right now, alumni around the world are with us via streaming. Let's say hello to all of this great gathering of alumni around the world who are on video, on streaming with us. Yes.
[APPLAUSE] Awesome. All right, well today, we're going to take bridging distance between in-person and remote to a new level. I can neither confirm nor deny that we will hear from some fellow alums who have a message for this very audience as an example of remote communication, super remote communication, so think about that. Perhaps the ultimate in hybrid events will be happening today. Consider that a hint, but I'm getting ahead of myself. MIT has been leading the way in exploring space far above our heads for generations.
The effort we're probably most well-known for is the Apollo mission, MIT having been instrumental in creating technologies that helped the Moonshot to hit its mark at the end of the 1960s. Though that is the best-known example, it is by no means the only one. It's not an exaggeration to say that MIT Alumni? Have been core to the human exploration of space. Not only helping astronauts get to the surface of the moon, but also discovering the pulverized nature of the particles beneath its surface. And our alumni have even helped us see dramatically, exponentially farther than the moon, out into the deep recesses of space, searching for other forms of intelligent life. That's a long way to look up and look out.
But let me also remind us to look in the other direction as well back on our blue planet. Imagine that you're all on the International Space Station now casting your eyes down at Earth. What would our world look like if every MIT alum was a tiny point of light? You would see that MIT alumni have spread yourselves across the globe, doing important work in virtually every field. From technology to innovation, to academia, to the arts, to nonprofits, government service, and more.
That's all of you. Today, you're going to hear from five of our stellar faculty-- check your electronic programs for details-- as well as our moderator, vice president for research, E.A. Griswold, professor of geophysics and EAPS, current cochair for the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Maria Zuber. There will be a break after our first session, and then for the second year, the presentation of the MIT Alumni Better World Service Awards.
Then Vice President Zuber will return to moderate our next session on space. And finally, MIT president Sally Kornbluth and MIT Alumni Association president Steve Baker will sit down for a fireside chat. Our speakers will take you far out into space and back here to Cambridge. That sounds like a lot of fun, so let's get started.
Some quick housekeeping about the space-related panels. Audience members, both in this room and online, are encouraged to submit your questions during the faculty Q&A portion of Tech Day. For those of you who are watching online, simply input your questions in the chat box below the Livestream video on the web page. For our audience members here in-person, using your smartphone camera, point your smartphone at the QR code that appears on the screen right here, and tap the link that appears or type in the link that is displayed.
This will bring you to a web page where you can submit your questions. These will be visible on the screen throughout the faculty Q&A periods. If you're having trouble scanning the code, MIT Alumni Association staff are also located throughout the auditorium and can assist with your QR code. Please know that due to time constraints, scheduling, you all want to get through this and get to lunch, we may not be able to answer all questions, but we will do our best to cover all the themes. Thank you so much for being here, and now to the stars.
[APPLAUSE] Please welcome to the stage, MIT associate professor, Kerri Cahoy. [APPLAUSE] Good morning, everyone and welcome. I'm excited to be here today to talk about revolutionary nanosatellite technology. On this slide, you'll see two CubeSats, nanosatellites. They're five kilograms each.
On the left, we have a weather sensor that's used to sense tropical storms and hurricanes on a mission called TROPICS. And on the right is a MIT student-built laser communications satellite that is to help get data from orbit on these tiny platforms down to the ground. It is called CLICK. It's part of a three-satellite mission, CLICK A, B, and C. This is CLICK A, so I'm excited to talk to you about more of them. So these nanosatellites have some really important advantages.
They don't have to be only on the rocket by themselves. So they let you do rideshares, so you can have multiple spacecraft on a rocket, and you can get up to space in a couple of different ways. One way is kind of packing your bags and going to the airport.
You go up as cargo to the International Space Station, where the astronauts will unpack you, put you on a robotic arm, and then just like shown in this slide here, eject you into orbit. These are two MIT satellites. The one I'm talking today is the lasercom 1 CLICK A. Also hot off the press or hot off the launch pad, this past month, we've seen two MIT Lincoln and MIT student-developed missions for weather sensors. This is the TROPICS mission.
They are launching on a new small satellite launch rocket called the Rocket Lab Electron from New Zealand. Two of them went up on May 7, and then another two went up on May 25. I'm going to talk a little bit about what those missions are doing and some of the previous precursor successes that we've had on the experiments leading up to those. So first, the TROPICS mission.
This is a nanosatellite mission that is to help us do a better job of mapping where hurricanes and tropical storms go. It's very difficult to be able to track these because the satellites that we have, the weather satellites that we have on orbit right now revisit the same spot not even every day, sometimes every couple of days, sometimes every few days. What we can do when we have more smaller satellites is put them into orbits with more of them up so we can get revisit rates as low as only an hour. So when we have situations like this, where this is an example of Hurricane Ida, we can actually be able to improve this cone of uncertainty from where the hurricane is. So this is the predicted path, which is pretty wide, and it's hard to allocate resources and get the resources we need both for prevention and for recovery.
But if we knew the actual track, which is this line, better, we could do a better job of that. So these missions let us do that by sensing with radio frequency antennas, they sense the emission from atoms and molecules in the atmosphere. They're vibrating, and they give off these emission signals. And you can measure them, just like on a radio station kind of tuned to different channels. These antennas listen to different channels of radio frequency energy, and each channel lets us see a different height in the atmosphere.
So this is an example of one of the channels from some of our on-orbit data. This is Hurricane Ida coming in. This is before landfall, and this is after landfall, and this is looking at one of the channels that does a really good job of picking up precipitation, scattering off of precipitation. And you can see that before landfall, these are the rain bands, and after landfall, these are where the rain bands are.
So you can use this data to feed into our numerical weather forecasting software, which is only as good as the data that go into it, to improve the storm tracks and the predictions. It's really important as things get more intense. And to just give a sense of how small.
These are compared to the other satellites that don't have as many revisits, this is the kind of state of the art weather satellite, Suomi NPP. This is a human in a bunny suit down on the lab floor here working with it. This is 2,100 kilograms. For comparison, this is the nanosatellite. That's five kilograms.
And this is kind of to scale, so it's about as long as your arm. So this is very exciting work. However, one of the hard parts about these nanosatellites is getting data from them to the ground. They don't have any big antennas on them. They don't have any huge batteries. They don't have huge solar panels to get that data down.
And even if they did, the radio frequency spectrum for getting data from space to Earth is really congested. It's really contentious, and it's difficult to get licenses for those. So what we are doing here at MIT, and this year, our students have developed a way to use essentially just like this laser pointer from space to blink it kind of on and off to get data down to low-cost ground telescopes literally on campus.
So we built a satellite called CLICK A that I'm going to talk about. That was the one deploying from the Space Station, and it connected to an amateur astronomy class telescope that you can literally buy on Amazon with-- it's souped up a little bit. And we had a successful data link to the telescope that I'll show you about, and our next step is going to do a cross link between terminals on orbit, and that's coming up next year. So this is the ground station. It doesn't look like you would expect.
So literally during the pandemic, everybody was building sheds in their backyard. We built a shed too. So this is the Wallace Observatory in Westford.
And the roof on it kind of slides over to the side, and this is where we have the 28 centimeter amateur astronomy Celestron telescope that has some extra accessories for tracking and being able to track the satellite. And this is kind of a comparison of the state of the art facility. So this is an amazing facility where they do an amazing amount of work with deep space lasercom missions, but it's much bigger.
So this is a telescope at Table Mountain in California, and this is kind of the comparison to the inside of the shed. We have a lot of racks of equipment, a lot of optical elements, a lot of adaptive optics. So this is the data that we took in November, just when it was getting cold. We need to plan it for summer next time. But this is light from that little satellite coming to the telescope at Westford, and this is showing that it does it with pointing error that's well low enough to meet our goal line to be able to communicate at 10 megabit per second data rates to the satellite, so we're very excited about this work.
So just moving towards future forecasting, a lot of exciting things are happening in the space domain. We're moving towards more of a space internet. I think we'll start to see analysis happening more on orbit.
So all the data that these satellites are taking, we do have a struggle right now to get them down to the ground and analyzed. I think with AI, with onboard computing and processing improving and better resources being made on satellites, we'll start to see these data being exchanged above the clouds and being able to instead network and develop a space internet where we're starting to do more of this analysis on orbit, and our results of the inferences, the lower data rate things, are what we'll need to send to the ground. So we'll be able to pass data around, do the inferences analysis on orbit, and then have a reduced data volume to the ground with more nodes on orbit doing more persistent, constant imaging and getting better data. So this is all very exciting, and we're trying to build the technologies to make that possible. MIT is really excited about leading the way in this area.
We have a new small satellite collaborative that brings together multiple departments on campus, a lot of our affiliates along with us. And so we're going to innovate and lead the way. And I don't know if you noticed-- I hope you noticed-- on top of Building 54 this year, as you visit campus, we have managed to refurbish the radome thanks to ARDC and other sponsors. So we have a new radome up on Building 54 for the five meter dish up there that we are going to use for both amateur radio activities, as well as small satellite mission and communication. So it's all very exciting, and I'm happy to talk more about it and help get everyone connected and involved. So thank you so much and appreciate the time.
[APPLAUSE] Please welcome to the stage, MIT assistant professor, Danielle Wood. [APPLAUSE] Good morning to my fellow alum. It's so great to see you all.
Thanks for being here. Hello, I am Danielle Wood, and I'm so excited to talk to you about my Space Enabled Research Group, where we design systems such as propulsion systems for satellites with beeswax that are asking how we can promote sustainability on Earth and in space. One of the things I love about MIT is that we do important traditional things in nontraditional ways.
I was very excited recently to see an MIT news story that features some of my leadership. We have recently announced the first time, we're having graduates in a formal major in African and African Diaspora Studies. I have the honor of serving as the faculty advisor to students like Stacey, who are graduating with this major or minor or concentration in the humanities. Now, you may be wondering why a professor in the Media Lab and AeroAstro is the faculty lead for African Studies at MIT and why I coteach a class in African Studies along with Professor [? Fossero, ?] Michel DeGraff, and here's why. I am an expert in the activities and the collaboration with countries all over Africa who want to use space technology to promote sustainability right here at home. You just saw a wonderful talk about the kinds of small satellite technology that's available these days.
And since the '90s, countries all over Africa have been exploring how to use these tools for their own sustainability. When I was an undergrad here at MIT, I was interested in the question of how to get involved with development projects in Africa. I used to go to Kenya and to volunteer at a school. But here at MIT, I was working on the spheres robots that were headed to the Space Station and thinking, is there a connection between my interest in African Development and my interest in space? I wanted to work for NASA and be part of that mission. And soon I learned that countries like Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, and others have space programs.
Many of them are focused on using satellite data to make better maps at home. But also as technology was getting more and more affordable, they were very interested in using small satellites to train local engineers and be a part of the small satellite revolution you're just hearing about. So these days I'm both interested in designing next generation small satellite technology but also collaborating with the countries that are creating their own domestic space programs. They're also interested in the question, how can they support progress on sustainable development goals? How many of you have seen this graph before? Do you know the SDGs? That's wonderful to see. If you don't know them, please go look them up and figure out which ones you are working on because the global community is engaged in an urgent mission to ensure that we are addressing our important challenges of our generation. We need to eliminate extreme poverty.
It can be done. We need to coordinate on making sure everyone has access to food and water, education, opportunities for jobs, and this is something that everything can support, including our space technology. One of my areas is asking, how can we use the wonderful data from satellites, such as those operated by NASA's Earth Observation Systems.
They take measurements of what's happening in the atmosphere, in the poles where the global important ice loads are being held, in the ocean, in forests. There are many special kinds of data. And to be honest, it's wonderful free data, but it is hard to use. I have wonderful, highly-trained students in my team, and we take a long time learning each different kind of satellite, and that means that it's a barrier for important leaders at local and national scales who are asking how they can use this data in their own countries. I often work with NASA.
I recently I received a grant from NASA as part of their Applied Sciences Program, who are asking how we can make it easier and reduce the barriers for countries like Angola to use NASA satellite data. I want to give a shout out to Professor [? Darren ?] [? Dacavi ?] here at MIT. He's an expert on drought decision making, especially using satellite from NASA's SMAP data. Southern Angola is a region that faces chronic patterns of drought and floods. Local communities depend heavily on rainfall to keep their crops and animals healthy. I recently visited Angola and have been invited by their national space agency to work on a several year project to apply NASA's satellite data to improve their use of the mapping and decision-making during drought response.
Now, their country is investing in having their own space program because they believe it will help with communications as well as these important mapping issues. And NASA's provides free data that's very relevant, but, of course, it takes expertise to learn how to turn the NASA data into action. One of the ways we can do is by making maps like these that show patterns based on the soil moisture, and the soil moisture can be estimated by measuring the microwave radiation from the Earth, and we're turning that into maps showing where the drought is extreme.
Eventually, we'll also overlay that data with socioeconomic data and help to direct where is there the greatest need for drought response. Another example is in Ghana. They have an exciting space program called the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute. They're also interested in radio astronomy. What you see here is the first example of the square kilometer array telescope.
It's going to be a multicontinent radio telescope happening in several countries in Africa and Australia studying the ancient history of the universe. Back here on Earth, Ghana's also concerned with how to use satellite data to track important issues like deforestation due to both legal and illegal mining. A publication we talked about recently, with NASA funding, highlights techniques to use NASA's satellite data to identify areas where there's environmental hazards due to illegal mining in Ghana. We're doing this in collaboration with their national space program.
In fact, I'm heading to Ghana later this summer, and we'll have a chance to review and see how our NASA's satellite data estimates compare to local findings. Now, that's a major concern with illegal mining in Ghana. There are regions where it's pursued, especially for gold mining, and methods that do not follow the local environmental protection requirements. It leads to water pollution and of course, deforestation at rates that are not approved, and this is an important area of biodiversity is key to preserve. We can use a combination of optical data, things that our eyes would interpret, but also three dimensional information through LiDAR and radar measurements to estimate what kinds of mining are happening and where it's changing.
Our data shows that there's an extreme amount of deforestation due to this artisanal mining. In particular, that the artisanal mining is increasing its rate faster than the legally-approved mining, and we can tell this based on the patterns of the mines and the land change that's happening. We also created then a map looking at the whole country based on satellite data using machine learning to interpret the information, and we're able to make maps showing where land use is changing, where you see a change between urbanization, deforestation, agriculture. All of this is so important because the government of Ghana is dedicated to the sustainable development goals. They're eager to have information to report how things are changing and to make better policies to improve life for their country. When I go there, I'm working with the statistical service as well, and they literally, as you see.
Have the poster for the SDGs, but they're the ones who are collecting all the important data to track their progress for these important goals. And we're dedicated to transferring the knowledge between our teams, they are experts on what's happening locally, and we're providing this data from satellites. Together, we can help them figure out how to make the best policies toward development. So we're so happy to share this example, and I hope that you find ways to use your technology to support the SDGs as well. Thank you so much.
[APPLAUSE] Please welcome to the stage MIT Professor, Jeff Hoffman. [APPLAUSE] Hi, everyone. Welcome back. So before I came to MIT, now, what, 22 years ago, I spent 20 years with NASA as an astronaut and made five flights on the space shuttle. One of the things that never ceased to impress us was looking back here at this very thin blue line.
On a beautiful sunny day-- not like today-- it looks like the blue sky goes on forever. No, it's this tiny little thin thread of glue that protects us from the harsh environment of space and of course, keeps us alive. And this is the problem. When you go into space, whether you are in orbit around the Earth or on the moon or someday going to Mars-- I hope you've all seen the movie-- we need oxygen to breathe.
And Matt Damon managed to get back to launch himself into space. That was a pretty cool movie. What they didn't tell you about in the movie though, where did all that propellant come for this rocket? Hey, we're AeroAstra.
We know how to calculate these things. I don't have time to lead you through the whole calculation. I'll just put up the results there. But we know the gravity is less than Earth.
It doesn't have quite so much atmosphere. 80% propellant fraction, methane, oxygen propellant. You're left with 30 tons. We breathe a little less than one kilogram of oxygen per day, and that's what most people think of.
Why do you need oxygen in space? Yeah, if I were on Mars I'd want oxygen to breathe, OK, but if I want to come back home, I need a heck of a lot more oxygen. And here's the problem-- again, in AeroAstra, we can calculate what we call the gear ratio. To get one ton of anything on the surface of Mars, we've got to put 15 tons in orbit around the Earth. Now, a lot of stuff we have to send to Mars. Anything we manufacture-- spacesuits, computers, habitats-- we don't make those things on Mars, at least not yet.
Dumb old oxygen. I mean, it's expensive to send stuff to Mars. And if we could make oxygen on Mars, we're way ahead of the game.
And so this is what I hope we'll see someday in the future, we'll send people to Mars, but we want to bring them back. And what I've just shown you is the problem. It's expensive to send things there, especially oxygen. So ISRU, which is In-situ Resource Utilization, hopefully will provide part of the answer. This is what our MOXIE experiment is all about, the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment.
This is a full-size 3D printed, just to give you a sense of the scale, this is the actual instrument. You've all electrolyzed water in high school chemistry, right? Well, you can electrolyze carbon dioxide. And although Mars has a very thin atmosphere, 1% the density of Earth at sea level, it's almost entirely carbon dioxide-- 95%, 96%. So we take the carbon dioxide, we pull it in through a HEPA filter to filter out the dust. We compress it with the scroll compressor up there and put it into an electrolysis unit, solid oxide. It's hard to electrolyze carbon dioxide.
You have to heat it up to 800 Celsius. Then you pass it over a cathode with nickel and some rare Earth elements, and then you have to run it through a special ceramic electrolyte scandium-doped zirconia, which has a crystalline structure that only allows oxygen ions to penetrate, not electrons. So we end up getting basically 100% pure oxygen at the anode. And this is something that has been tested many times in a laboratory, but NASA has a rule that if you have a critical process or piece of equipment-- and making oxygen for a trip to Mars I would say is pretty critical-- you've got to test it first in the real environment, and that's why we had to send it to Mars.
So here we are loading MOXIE onto the Perseverance Rover. It doesn't look much like a Rover here. It's upside down. It doesn't have the wheels yet, but that's what a Rover looks like in its infancy. Then we launch it to Mars, we land it.
Perseverance landed back in February of 2021. It's a remarkable mission for many ways, not just because of MOXIE, and it's making a lot of firsts. On the business end of the robotic arm, in addition to scientific instruments like X-ray spectrometers, there's also a coring device, which is for the first time collecting samples that we'll be able to bring back to the Earth. Because one of the main purposes of this mission is to look for potential evidence of past life on Mars, which is why we went to Jezero Crater. You can see the river, and it set out a delta. Clays and carbonates, at least here on Earth, are excellent materials for preserving fossils.
Now, we don't know if there was life, if there was, did it leave fossils. If there are fossils, you still have to be pretty lucky to find it, but we're trying. And now we have deposited 10 sample canisters.
They're lying on the surface of Mars waiting to be picked up by a NASA European Mars sample return mission, and we'll get them back sometime hopefully in the 2030s. And in Earth laboratories, we have instruments powerful enough that if there are fossils or any chemical signs of life, we'll be able to detect it. The other incredible thing-- I'm sure you've seen pictures, but back on April 19 of 2021, we had the first flight of a aerodynamic vehicle-- this was a Wright brothers moment. It only made a simple flight.
It went up five meters and came back down, but it was the first controlled flight of an aerodynamic vehicle in the atmosphere of another planet, like the Wright brothers. On the 100th anniversary of the Wright Flyer, they put a model up on the top of the dome. I don't know if they're going to put a model of the Ingenuity helicopter, but it certainly deserves it. And the very next day, on the 20th of April, for the very first time, oxygen was produced on another planet from local resources. I'm sorry, oxygen is not as photogenic as a helicopter.
You can't see it. All I can show you is the-- but we did it. And what we set out to do was to demonstrate that this process would work during any season and at different times of day. The shaded area is the predicted density profile in the course of a Mars year. We've been running now for over two years.
We've run 14 times. This is kind of the set-- and we're due to run next Tuesday again, and we're going to try to push our production up to 12 grams an hour. If we could do that continuously, which we can't because we use more power than the Rover can generate with its RTG, and so we would run down the batteries. But if we could produce it continuously, we could keep a small dog alive.
That's not what we want to do. Ultimately, we want to keep people alive on Mars. And so the company out in Salt Lake City that has made the electrolysis unit already is working with NASA to produce a human scale. Instead of producing 10 to 12 grams an hour, in order to produce enough oxygen to get that 30 tons during the time between missions, you have about maybe a year and a half to do that. You have to produce about three kilograms an hour.
So we're talking about scaling up MOXIE by several hundred, but we can do it. And so some day-- I don't when it's going to happen-- we will send people to Mars. What's it going to take to do that? Well, what's really holding us back is that Mars is a long way away. The moon you can get to in a couple of days. Mars takes many months. So the things you want to be on the lookout for so you'll know we're actually ready to go is, first of all, if we can get there faster.
NASA's working with the Energy Department on nuclear thermal propulsion. And if we could get there faster, we'd really, really be ahead of the game. Because one of the problems is during that whole trip of seven or eight months, you're exposed to cosmic radiation, you have to have logistic supplies to eat, and so on, so getting there faster is really going to be important.
The other thing to keep your eye on is how successful are we at going back, once again, to explore the moon. But this time, remember, NASA doesn't have an Apollo budget. And so this is the big challenge for human space exploration is how do we explore and not have NASA budget-- not have an Apollo budget, and that's why being able to use local resources is so important.
So I don't know who the people will be who first go to Mars or when they're going to go, but my advice to them-- and I hope they won't forget-- don't forget your MOXIE. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Please welcome to the stage MIT vice president for research, Maria Zuber. [APPLAUSE] All right. Good morning, everybody. It's so wonderful to see you all here.
So I'd like to first of all just start off with thanking all the alumni online and here in the auditorium for upvoting space as this year's topic because it's my favorite thing, and so I'm so thrilled to be with you today. So what we were trying to do when we put this program together for this event was to try to convey to all of you the many skills and talents that you need to really explore space, utilize space, and exist in space. And it's not just go to the AeroAstro Department or you go to the Physics Department. That you really need engineering, you need science, but you also need things like governance, national security. There are many things that come into it, and we were trying to get a feel-- give you a feel for many of those things.
So we're going to have some conversations today. We want to hear from you. And I'm not going to spend any time up at the podium talking here.
I want to bring our first set of speakers up, and we'll get the questions going. [APPLAUSE] OK, all right, so Kerri, let's start with you. And so I was telling all of our guests here in attendance and online about the very many skills that we need to explore space. And you are a professor in AeroAstro, and you're also a professor in Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. And in your talk, you showed your small satellites, and then you showed the observations that they're making. And you're an end-to-end person.
I mean, you buy the components, put them together, test them, send them up there, bring the data down, analyze the data. Talk about what it brings to really have a grasp of the end-to-end process in terms of the quality of the hardware but also the scientific outcome. Yeah, it takes a village to have a space mission, as we know. It really takes everything.
It takes electrical engineers to do the component development and testing, as well as computer science to write the software, mechanical engineering to do the CAD work and then order the parts and help put it together and test it and make sure it'll survive launch. Environmental testing everything, and then most importantly is the interaction with the scientists because you're doing this all for a reason. So you need really good requirements developed. You need to talk to the scientists to understand what the data is that they're hoping to get and how the instrument you're building is going to get that data for them in a way that's usable for them and is getting it at the right time and in the right place. So having the ability on campus to work across departments from AeroAstro and to be able to bring in students, both graduates and undergraduates, from both the School of Science, the School of Engineering, and now Computing to work on these projects is really necessary.
We need all of them to do a good job, and having students who get to participate in that process makes more people who know how to see everything and put it all together so they'll be able to go out into industry, into research, into NASA, and continue to do this and grow the crowd of people who can help bring these things together and see all the parts that it takes and work together. So it's really a great opportunity to be here, especially with our students and our alumni and our affiliates to be able to work with everyone to make these things happen. It's just amazing.
Great. Thank you. So a couple more questions I've been asked here. But again, I want to emphasize, let's get your questions in. If you're streaming in, input your questions into the Slido area beneath the streaming. And then if you're here in-person, scan the QR code, and it'll show you how to put your questions in.
OK? Danielle, there's been a lot of talk about the democratization of space. OK, space used to be the place of former test pilots. Now, space is becoming a place for everybody, and you showed some really excellent examples of how space can be used to help all kinds of people on Earth.
But on the other hand, access to space, the commercialization to space, it's basically tech billionaires that are driving the effort. And what do we do to get more regular people, like us, for example, up into space and all of you here? Thank you for the question. I think a lot of news media tells one story that we see a few people who appear to be the ones driving us in space, but I want to share-- I'm flying tonight to Vienna, which is an important hub, actually, for the global space conversation. I'm going to Vienna, Austria because there's an office there called the Office of Outer Space Affairs in the United Nations.
And next week, I'll spend five days with delegates from countries around the world from every continent, and they are talking about the global issues of space policy for the coming years. It means countries from Africa and Latin America and Asia, every region are saying what is important, including reducing space debris to make sure it's safe for all of us to keep operating-- this is a really key issue-- and asking the question, who gets to play a role? Not just in human spaceflight, but in every form. I think it's so important that all the areas of space technology are well-attended by people around the world. It means researchers from every college around the world sending experiments to space stations in the future to understand microgravity better. It means people getting involved with activities. For example, my team leads the Zero Robotics Program inherited from Professor David Miller in AeroAstro.
A lot of good support from Jeff in the past. This means we have students all over the world involved with learning to code a robot that's on the Space Station, where they get to see at the end of the summer of training, they could see an astronaut saying, this is your code, and now we're going to push the button, and your robot's going to do what your code says, and hopefully we'll see that it works well. So I think we see a lot of ways that humans can engage with space, both through remote participation, like sending your code up, through being able to have your science through sending microgravity research experiments. My hope is that every university in the future has opportunities to engage with these various forms-- whether it's science, microgravity studies, engineering. I think that's something we can really scale right now, and United Nations plays a key role in that as well.
Great. Jeff, you've flown in space five times, and now you've just been the first person to-- well, leader of a team that has created a prototype for rocket fuel on the surface of Mars. How do those experiences compare? I mean, you would have thought, how do you follow walking five times and go to space five times? Well, when I first went to NASA as a young astronaut in 1978, it was just a few years after the Apollo program, and we all thought that we were going to get to Mars.
I mean, all it was going to take was another president to say, yeah, let's go to Mars, and it will happen like it did in Apollo. The real world has sort of caught up with us. As I said, NASA's no longer has an Apollo budget. I've been very fortunate. One of the reasons I wanted to come here to MIT, I was sort of concerned when I left the Astronaut Corps, I love space.
It's been my life. Am I going to lose my contact with it? And this has been the wonderful thing here at MIT is I've had so many research projects with NASA, this being one of them the most significant. So I've been very fortunate to have been able to continue to make contributions to human spaceflight, even while recognizing that I've probably had my last flight back in 1996. Although if there was ever a chance, I mean, I'd be happy to go again. [LAUGHTER] Don't tell my wife, please. And it's becoming possible.
OK, so we've got we've got a bunch of questions from the alums here, so let's start out with them. What issues do you see going forward with all of these small satellites being put in orbit over the past several years? Kerri talked about the congestion of the communication frequencies. What are the other issues-- Kerri, you can start out, but I think Danielle probably has something to say about this as well. Sounds good. Yeah, so there are a couple of issues.
Obviously, there's the radiofrequency congestion. There's the space debris problem. There's light pollution for astronomy and astronomical telescopes. All of these things are definitely concerning. A lot of the CubeSats and nanosatellites like the ones that I work on for test and demonstration are deployed at altitudes where they-- for example, our missions are deployed in September. By March, they're burning up, and they're little-- they've completed their mission, and now they're meteors.
So a lot of the testing and demonstration can be done at lower altitudes, and that's a good responsible way to take care of not leaving debris in orbit. Beyond that, there are a lot of other missions where you need to have this-- there needs to be some type of regulation that makes it part of your mission plan to responsibly deorbit, and these have been consistently updated, so those are some of the things that we need to think about. If you don't have propulsion on board or thrusters on board, then you need to have some type of device if you're low enough that can create enough drag to bring you down eventually. And if you're high enough, then we have more problems.
Like, for example, in the geostationary orbit, there's what's called a graveyard orbit. That's a couple of hundred kilometers above, where it's just like if you're in geostationary orbit, you're 35,000 kilometers up. You're not going to have enough propulsion to come back down, so they've been leaving things up there.
And at some point those will go unstable and have crossing orbits that'll be an issue. So we've got a clean up task on the decade level horizon, and I'll hand it over to Danielle to comment on how we're going to solve that problem. [LAUGHTER] I love it, Kerri. Thank you so much. That was perfect actually because what we've highlighted is actually a wonderful motivation for excellent research. I want to appreciate Professor [? Richard ?] [? Norris, ?] Professor [? More, ?] visiting faculty with us.
What we really need to address these issues is a globally adopted system of space traffic management. This is one of the research areas that somebody who wants to make sure that every country in Africa can have their own space program and not be distracted by these key issues. We need to now move into a future vision.
It's a research area. It's questions on how do we track everything that's actually orbiting the Earth-- that's still ongoing challenge. How do we then think about this upcoming system-- we're going to eventually retire the Space Station, and we'll see a number of new private or internationally coordinated space stations that are smaller and operating with humans and nonhuman systems.
How do we make sure that there's information being shared across countries and across systems? The US is playing a key role, but it needs to be a global effort. So there's some really interesting research. I have students who are taking pieces of these problems and asking, what is the role of the US military, for example, as we address upcoming ways of doing servicing in places like you mentioned Geo. Meanwhile, my team is trying a simple question-- not simple, but a small piece-- which is, how do we increase the use of propulsion for these smaller satellites? That's what I mentioned earlier. It'd be great if they were sustainable materials, so we're studying candle wax and beeswax as candidates.
But there's lot of fun innovation because these problems are so dire. We want to make sure it continues to be feasible for every country to safely operate in space, so we need to invent a new space traffic management system with all these components. OK. All right, the next question I think is going to be for all three of you.
So all three of you significantly involve students in your research and students actually building hardware, analyzing data that it comes down. Talk about the role of students being able to do things that kind of have to work and the level of training and the level of discipline that they have to be able to develop. I mean, they still need to fail in the lab, but if you're spending a lot of money to spend something into space, it's a big effort. And so there are real contrasts in this, and I wonder if you could all comment on your philosophy of how you handle the need to educate, but the desire to succeed more often than not.
So Jeff, do you want to start things off for us? Yeah, I mean, people often ask, why do we spend so much money testing things in the space program? And the reason-- I mean, I think it's obvious to everyone here, once you've launched it, I mean, yeah, I went up and I fixed the Hubble Space Telescope back in '93, but that's an unusual opportunity. Normally, once you launch something, it's up there, and that's not where you want to find out where the failure modes are. You want to put all of your hardware through as rigorous a test as you possibly can. And somehow, teaching students to think, how can things fail-- I mean, that was what I had to do as an astronaut, one of my important jobs, look at a piece of equipment. How can this fail? And if it fails, is there anything we can do about it? And what sort of testing do we have to do to make sure that it won't fail? It's a kind of a psychology, which if you're going to be successful in space research, you have to internalize it. Test and test and test.
And this is why we have students working in the labs. They do analysis. How far can you push something before it's going to fail? Then go into the lab and test your analysis. Make sure that you've done it correctly. And by the time they finish working on a project-- and also, there's something for a student to be able to put their hands on something that they know is going to be up in space, that's really exciting, and that's an opportunity to get them thinking of what do we have to do to get it to work.
That's enough from me. I'll pass it on. Danielle? To be honest, part of the answer is that we teach students to experience failure and then to be able to recover from it.
My most recent failure is a fun story. I really want appreciate one of our undergraduates. I want to appreciate [? Zanuri, ?] who's been working with me for the last three years in AeroAstro.
She got an award this year because she has played a key role in an experiment we were trying to send to the moon on a Rover with the United Arab Emirates inside a Lander with Japan launched by a US rocket. It was going to be, hopefully, the first commercial system to land safely on the moon. If you were watching some of the recent coverage, you might have seen that we crashed.
We did not succeed, but I'm so proud that first undergrad had a chance to build a special part of our experiment. It was a passive system to collect dust on the Rover wheel. And I was excited to say, here's my student who did the final packaging and testing of this system that she manufactured as part of our design, and it was on its way to the moon. As soon as it crashed, she built another one that we then sent for follow-up testing in the labs. We want to compare our expectations to the lab. So I think she has now experienced both building something that she could say, yes, this is an honest way to space, and she learned how to do the experience of, it didn't go as we planned.
Let me quickly do some new change of plans and more engineering to still keep going and still not give up. So I think part of it is learning how to recover from failure. Failures do happen, but we're going to keep going.
Great. Kerri? Yeah, I guess just really quickly, two things. One is planning margin, both in if possible-- and I say this laughing because we're always short on time for software testing. Planning margin and schedule and in budget so that when these things happen, there's time for them. Being really responsible and reporting when things aren't going well and being honest and having a good relationship with the students so they're comfortable telling you when this is too much or this isn't going well or we're worried about this and being able to hear from your team. A lot of the social engineering skills are really important in being successful.
Realizing that failure is something you have to deal with too. It'll be OK. Part of it is to just really enjoy the journey, enjoy the skills you're gaining, enjoy the people you're working with, and keep pushing that vision forward through adversity. It's the through adversity part that I think really mints the teams that come out of space experimentation as you get there.
And if you don't get there, you'll go again. And that's, I think, part of the process and one of the more important parts of things that students learn and benefit from. So we've got a variety of technology-related questions. And Kerri, there was one on the role of atmospheric disturbances in getting lasercom signals down to Earth, so maybe you could comment on that. Yeah, yeah, there's always the question about lasercom-- oh, but the clouds or the atmosphere.
And it's true, you can't-- at least not with the low-power lasers-- send them through clouds and atmosphere. And you do need to be able to when light is coming through media that is varying, it refracts, and so it disperses, and so the signal that you get down isn't this nice, clean wavefront. A lot of what we do is correct for that, and there are active optical elements mirrors that you can use that you actually measure the amount of distortion that is in the signal and then apply nanometer scale mirror change. You bounce the signal off a mirror with a surface change, and then you can correct it and resterr the beam where you want to have it go. So they're technical solutions, and then they're are they're kind of operational solutions to dealing with that.
Meaning that you might want to route your signals on orbit to a place where downlinks are-- you have a clearer atmosphere environment to downlink them. But there are some great technologies with mirrors and what's called adaptive optics controls to try to help correct for the effects of turbulence and the atmosphere on optical signals. OK, Danielle, are there particular technological advances that have, I'd say, accelerated this opening up of space to try to help people who need help on Earth? Thank you so much for asking. I didn't have time earlier to talk about the fun ways we get to use AI. So earlier, I quickly said, well, we made a whole map of Ghana and talked about all the land use change. When I say that, what I mean is, I'm collaborating with teams that are asking, what's the best way to use machine learning to interpret information as we look at satellite data from multiple kinds of satellites and understand exactly where do you classify an area as a city-- it's a forest, maybe a certain kind of crop.
And so it's exciting to see that there's both increasing open access to both, not just the data itself but to cloud-based data processing. I can think about companies like Google and others-- and also NASA's asking their questions too. How can we increase computational capability? Because part of the challenge in the past has been, it's expensive and complex and time-consuming to bring all the wonderful data to your own computer.
So cloud-based data processing, the ability to have-- even when you have intermittent internet, being able to have things processing in the background in the cloud, and then be able to have hopefully shareable code that can be repeated in different regions around the world. We see exciting software advances and network advances making this possible. Great. Jeff, the question for you is-- and it's a longstanding one-- power on the surface of Mars. Is solar power going to be sufficient to make enough fuel to get us home? So talk to us about that.
I had a graduate student finish last year, and his thesis was looking at a detailed modeling of a human scale version of MOXIE to produce the amount of oxygen you need-- roughly 25 kilowatts. And yeah, you can. I mean, the Space Station has over 100 kilowatts. Earth is a lot closer to-- Well, the Earth is closer, but the problem on Mars is, first of all, there's day and night. And if you're going to run an oxygen production facility, you don't want to shut it down every day. That's one of the problems we have in MOXIE.
Most of our power goes in heating it up every time we want to make a run every other month. So you'd need a big battery storage system or fuel cells, more mass. Also, you have dust accumulating, and how are you going to clean the solar panels? I think, whether it's nuclear fission is all that we have available now, although if some of the work that's come out of MIT pans out, we may have nuclear fusion 10 years from now, which would be great. But you want to do human exploration, you need a lot of power.
And once you get to planetary surfaces, solar power just isn't going to hack it on Mars. Great, yeah. OK, so we're running short on time, and I want to get a couple more questions in. So first, one for you two. There are a variety of questions about how these small satellites can help us make observations to address climate change, both mitigation and adaptation, so if the two of you take a quick whack at those.
Yeah, so small satellites are great because, again, you have more of them. You can get more frequent updates. You can also put different types of cameras on them.
You can put hyperspectral sensors on them, which can sense changes in chemical composition. You do have to calibrate them very well, and you do have to have AI algorithms that can train on hundreds of very narrow channels of data and be able to use them. So these things are valuable.
You have weather sensors, several different varieties. People are starting to use small satellites now for even things like synthetic aperture radar, small radar systems, altimetry systems, and things like that can provide additional information about activities below. There are very successful companies that do radio frequency signal monitoring to kind of track where things are happening. Ships are, for example, or warships are that should not be there. And so there's a lot of those types of technologies.
They all have a role for climate change, and as we're figuring out the most impactful forcing factors, carbon dioxide and methane, similar things like that, we can look for sources and then take diplomatic action, where I'll hand it over to Danielle. I mean, you have this data, but somebody needs to be able to do something with it, and I think that's where I kind of pass over to you here. What a great summary. And I'll just emphasize, in particular, we're in a nice period of innovation in methane in particular.
Greenhouse gases include multiple, including water, but CO2 and methane are so important. And right now, several organizations, nonprofit and for-profit, are really trying to increase the ability to estimate methane emissions from space. And what we really need is this combination of what you might call the traditional government satellite, usually larger and longer-lasting, but sees more regional view with some of these innovative experimental satellites coming from nongoverment sources. So a few things to watch out for as you see new methane satellites. Our team is involved the project trying to help the government of Brazil-- in this case, in the city of Rio de Janeiro.
They have traditional techniques for making little surveys of where they think methane emissions are happening. We want to compare that with the space-based data, so that's where the policy can come right into play at the local scale often. And so we are hoping to demonstrate or to understand how well these novel methane emissions will be able to be tracked from space and compare to local action to hopefully help reduce that. Great.
OK, and Jeff, the last question's for you. When are we going to send humans to Mars? People always ask me that, and-- So we're asking you that. And I never answer because I don't know. It's going to depend on so many things.
I mentioned in my talk a few of the things that we're going to have to look for. But I think absolutely we're going to have to have a successful return to the moon program. It's been 50 years since we've operated on the surface of another planetary body, and the people who did it in Apollo aren't around anymore, so we've got to learn how to do it again. And I think if we have a successful moon program, a lot of the technologies that we're going to need for going to Mars will be tested on the moon.
And so after we've gotten back to the moon and we've operated then for a few years, maybe I'll be ready to answer your question. How about that? That sounds great. Let's thank our panelists. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. [APPLAUSE] OK, we're going to take a break and then back for some alumni awards.
[APPLAUSE] Please welcome to the stage MIT Alumni Association President Steve Baker. Good morning, everyone. Welcome back to our Tech Day program. Thank you all. I'm Steve Baker, and I'm honored to be entering my final month as MIT Alumni Association president.
What a way to cap a great year. Tech Day is one of the institute's most enduring traditions and a celebration of the desire of our MIT community to never stop learning and never stop problem solving. We all share that as alumni. Another tenant of our community, as you know, is the application of our knowledge in service to society.
During the past few years, the MIT Alumni Association has introduced several outstanding new initiatives. And the creation of the MIT Alumni Better Service Award is among the most significant. Now in its second year, this award honors alumni who have proven an ability, passion, and unwavering commitment to the MIT ideal of working wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind. The Service Award was created in compliment with the MIT Alumni Association's long standing leadership awards. While those recognized service to the MIT community, this new honor celebrates the service that our alumni provide to their communities around the world.
And when the Alumni Association puts out the call for nominations for the Service Award, we are amazed to receive so many worthy submissions for consideration. This year, the Awards Committee for the Alumni Association Board of Directors decided to honor not one, not two, but three better [INAUDIBLE] award recipients. And I'm proud to share with you why all three have been risen to the top of the nominations. Please join me in congratulating Vanessa Feliberti Bautista from the class of 1991, Oluwasegun Ige, who holds an SM and PhD from MIT, and Donald Rea, who also holds a PhD.
Donald is watching-- I'm sorry. [APPLAUSE] Donald is watching with us online. Vanessa and Segun, would you please join me on stage? [APPLAUSE] Congratulations. Congratulations.
Stand over here while I read your citation. Vanessa is an outstanding leader who has committed herself to the cause of enabling equal access for technological jobs for underrepresented populations. Her work in creating, leading, and supporting programs for education, job training, and career development has enabled hundreds of racial and ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged individuals to find life changing opportunities to achieve their career and life goals. She has inspired countless young technologists to find their place and their worth in their work.
As a lead for the women's community within the workplace, Vanessa has organized early in career activities, mentorship rings, and even argued with architects to include nursing facilities that new mothers need when they return to work. Vanessa has focused her service-related efforts on equity