At Tokyo University of Science, students research how humans can live in space

Emiko (left) and Miki (right) pose with the devices they built as part of the Space Education programme at the Tokyo University of Science. (Courtesy of Amarachi Nwosu / Malala Fund)

Emiko (left) and Miki (right) pose with the devices they built as part of the Space Education programme at the Tokyo University of Science. (Courtesy of Amarachi Nwosu / Malala Fund)

Led by Japan’s first female astronaut, the team of scientists at Space Colony Research Lab is preparing for life on a new planet.

Would a bubble burst in space? “The main reason bubbles break on land is gradient of thickness due to the gravity,” explains Emiko Yoshida, a third-year mechanical engineering student at Tokyo University of Science (TUS). So if there’s no gravity in space, could a bubble last forever?

It might seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s one that the students at TUS’s Space Colony Research Lab are trying to answer. Led by Professor Chiaki Mukai, Japan’s first female astronaut, the lab researches what humans would need to prepare for life in outer space, like how to grow food in a new climate or build housing that can regulate liveable temperatures.

When preparing for life on a new planet, it’s critical to think through every scenario — even the small things we take for granted on Earth could have drastic consequences when you’re light-years away.

Emiko presents findings from her team’s Space Bubbles experiment. (Courtesy of Amarachi Nwosu / Malala Fund)

Emiko presents findings from her team’s Space Bubbles experiment. (Courtesy of Amarachi Nwosu / Malala Fund)

High school and university students like Emiko have the opportunity to study at Space Colony Research Lab thanks to the Space Education programme that Professor Mukai helped launch. After making two trips to outer space with JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Professor Mukai made it her mission to get more women involved in space research.

The programme also brings in leading scientists to talk about their work and gives students the opportunity to visit JAXA facilities. Emiko is considering a career in space exploration and so she enjoys hearing from people in the industry, hoping to make connections for her future. “Meeting and working with professionals is the best way to make yourself a professional,” Emiko says.

Miki (far left) and Emiko (middle) show their devices to Malala when she visited Tokyo University of Science in March 2019. (Courtesy of Amarachi Nwosu / Malala Fund)

Miki (far left) and Emiko (middle) show their devices to Malala when she visited Tokyo University of Science in March 2019. (Courtesy of Amarachi Nwosu / Malala Fund)

But not all of the students in the Space Education programme are ready to launch into their careers. Some, like 17-year-old high school student Miki Arai, are still figuring out what they want to study. Miki won’t graduate for another year, though she is hoping to attend TUS. “If I could go to Tokyo University of Science, I would like to make a plan for planetary migration,” she says.

Miki worked on a team of four high school and two university students to build a device designed to clean up debris in space. “There is a lot of trash in space, for example, rocket fragments and used satellites,” she explained. “They can be severely damaging if it hits the International Space Station (ISS) or satellites in use.” Her device acts like a vacuum to suck particles from the atmosphere so they don’t collide with rockets or other equipment and put humans’ lives at risk.

Both Miki and Emiko presented their experiments during Malala Yousafzai’s visit to TUS’s campus in March. While in Japan to speak at the World Assembly of Women and meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Malala made time to meet with girls involved in STEM.

Miki may not be afraid of conquering complex technical projects, but when it comes to meeting Malala, Miki says she was “very nervous.” Since the native Japanese speaker had to deliver her speech in English, she was worried she wouldn’t get her message across. “I hoped to tell her the problems that humans have created in space. I also hoped to tell her there is a place where girls and women can play an active role in the space field,” Miki said.

Miki also shared with Malala that it’s important that the male-dominated fields of science and engineering be more welcoming toward young women, because they bring different perspectives to their work.

If Emiko and Miki are any indication, the future of space exploration is looking bright.


 
 

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About the Author

Hannah W. Orenstein is associate director of communications at Malala Fund. Her favourite ice cream flavour is pistachio.