Collaboration is key for the future of space exploration, HubWeek scientists say

The panelists at the 2019 HubWeek's talk, "Bodies in Space: The Next Generation of Exploration," Seaport, Boston, Mass., Wed. Oct. 2, 2019. Photo by Paige Colley/ BU News Service

By Paige Colley 
BU News Service

BOSTON — Uniting during Wednesday’s HubWeek Panel “Bodies in Space: The Next Generation of Exploration,” three scientists laying the foundation for the advancement of space travel shared stories about how their work has depended on collaboration. One is studying space travel, one is trying to make it habitable and one is ready to go to space. Without each other, the dream of furthering space exploration would be far from possible. 

Michael Johnson, one of the panelists, is a Smithsonian astrophysicist and Harvard lecturer who was part of the team that recently released the first photograph of a black hole

“To take this picture required creating a new type of telescope,” Johnson said. To take a photo of a black hole, even a low-resolution one, would require a telescope far larger than any in existence. 

“We realized to create this telescope we would have to join telescopes all over the world to synthesize an earth-sized telescope,” Johnson recounted. His team developed technology to link the various telescopes on earth and coordinated with the other scientists running the different locations.

After managing that feat, four separate groups were assembled to analyze the data. “There are cases where you’re worried you are injecting human bias into it,” Johnson said, and so each team worked independently, coming together seven weeks later to compare results. All four presented the same image, which was released earlier this year. 

Ariel Ekblaw, another panelist, is working on something more tangible than a photo of a distant object. As the founder and director of the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, Ekblaw is designing self-assembling architecture to create habitats that can function in environments with weak gravity, such as the International Space Station. 

Ekblaw’s team is focused on what life looks like for the people who will be living in space and she sees their efforts as a start towards space tourism and space hotel construction.

Her work is not a solo venture either. During the presentation, Ekblaw played a video showcasing many of the different experiments being created and tested. One experiment was a current project, TESSARAE, in which she is developing magnetic tiles that can self-assemble into structures like modules, dome habitats and perhaps one day, space cathedrals

“We represent huge efforts and a lot of collaborative expertise,” Ekblaw said.

Jonny Kim, the third panelist and a NASA Astronaut Candidate set to graduate later this year, has spent the past few years doing a variety of things, from survival training to practicing maneuvers in a giant pool simulating a low gravity environment. Like his peers, he didn’t get there on his own. 

“A lot of my experiences from medicine and from the military have taught me the value of collaboration,” Kim said. Once he completes his training, Kim will await an assignment from NASA for his first mission to space.

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