Imagine a thermal pump, except designed to work on the moon. Imagine building materials made from extraterrestrial sources and meant for extraterrestrial use. Such projects--i.e. those geared towards a self-sustaining human presence in space--are among those foreseen by the organisers of Spacehack, a three-day hackathon that kicks off on 14 April.
With 90 participants spread across 15 teams, Spacehack has reached its target size this year, says co-organiser Olivier Zephir of the Technoport. Last year there were 60 participants; in 2021, the first time it was run, there were 30.
Over the three days, each team will stress-test an idea, consolidate it (by determining its appeal, technical feasibility and economic viability) and turn it into a business proposal. The winner gets a week in which to come to Luxembourg, showcase the idea and hopefully make the connections necessary to further the project.
All participants, however, will benefit from learning outcomes and even university credit. “It’s not an event, it’s… an experience,” comments Zephir, adding that the hackathon is a rare opportunity to get a hands-on feel for the startup world. “We’re simulating real-life activities.”
The hackathon comes on the eve of Space Resources Week (19-21 April), put on by the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) and whose focus is to develop an ecosystem around using resources found in space. Hence, this year’s Spacehack theme: “Next Generation Space Resources Utilisation”.
As a concept, “space resources” is still nascent, which possibly makes it an exciting area for researchers and business hopefuls alike. “No one really knows what ‘space resources’ is,” says Lari Cujko of ESRIC, a co-organiser of Spacehack. “It’s very new, very interdisciplinary.” It covers a range of fields, he adds, citing physics, chemistry and engineering as examples.
While many spacetech challenges focus on specific tasks like setting up habitations on Mars or the moon, this year’s Spacehack is meant to be broader. Its output could pertain to a lunar settlement, says Cujko, but also to a lunar economy or general operations in outer space. To that end, its theme is further divided into five categories: infrastructures; water/oxygen extraction; energy; operations; and sustainability.
“Imagine, tomorrow or in 100 years, you’re on the surface of the moon,” says Cujko, elaborating on the “sustainability” category. “If you have to bring all the resources [you need] from the earth to the moon, it costs money, it pollutes… so how can you make do with the resources on the moon?”
“The economic sector is about New Space, yes,” adds Zephir, referring to the burgeoning private space industry. “But the technology [for space] is built with technologies from different [existing, terrestrial] areas.” Thus, bio products in space stem from the biotech field; communication products in space stem from communications; etc.
Converting ideas into products
The idea of Spacehack is not just to spark research ideas, but also--using the collective force of the organising bodies--to create real business opportunities. “These potential young entrepreneurs… they bring the brains, they are the real grey matter,” says Cujko, who sits in the commercialisation department at ESRIC. “But we want to help them commercialise the product.”
“We do the hackathon to publish a concept, to win the first prize to better describe and mature that concept,” says Zephir. The idea is also for the teams to position themselves to take their idea further: last year’s winner, Zephir explains, went on to win a European Space Agency challenge in December 2022.
That team, dubbed “C.U.T.E. System”, designed a modular system for producing heat and electricity on the moon using solar panels and a Stirling engine connected to a generator. “Spacehack gave us the opportunity to present our idea to a panel of space industry experts,” the team winners say in the Spacehack E-mag of 2022. “Having them challenge our idea let us determine if our solution could be technologically as well as economically viable.”
Besides the Technoport and ESRIC, also involved as organisers of Spacehack are Universeh, InTech and the Digital Learning Hub. Some 20 professionals from these organisations will serve (variously) as coaches, mentors, experts and judges.