Depending on what report you cite, commercial space is rocketing into a $200 to $400 billion market. Beyond space tourism, much of that is due to the wide variety of research — anything from agricultural, medical/pharmaceutical, electrical and more — that companies are itching to conduct in the cosmos.
Space industry veteran and engineer Twyman Clements saw this firsthand while working on aerospace research at the University of Kentucky, his alma mater, first as an undergrad and then continuing on projects involving NASA and others post-graduation. The breadth of industries that could benefit from low-gravity or zero-gravity research continued to open up.
“Every time humanity has been able to harness a new environment, like the space environment, it’s produced technology and capital creation,” says Clements. He set out to design a service to make that research more attainable and efficient.
Clements paired up with co-founder Kris Kimel, then president of the non-profit, research-focused Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, to form a for-profit spinoff company, Space Tango. The Lexington, Kentucky-based startup bills itself as a provider of “space as a service”.
The team designed a microwave-sized lab-in-a-box, appropriately called a TangoLab, that operates in microgravity (an environment very close to zero gravity). Each TangoLab holds 21 “CubeLabs”, stand-alone units that can each hold a different experiment.
Companies can place objects like plants, medicine, viruses, bacteria or even insects in the CubeLabs. Clements says that experiments range from studying invertebrates’ response to low gravity, to looking at mutations in plants for medicinal benefit, to studying stem cell differentiation in space.
The startup then puts the TangoLabs on a rocket and send them up to the International Space Station, coordinating with NASA and private space companies like SpaceX to do so. The hardware streams data back to researchers on Earth in very close to real-time, allowing them to monitor the experiments and collect results.
The company launch its first TangoLab in summer 2016 and its second in 2017. Though only four years old, they have launched about 30 experiments already.
One client that elicited some buzz for the young company was Anheuser-Busch, which publicly declared a commitment to put the “first beer on Mars.” Through Space Tango, the company sent 20 Budweiser barley seeds up to the space station in a TangoLab to study how one of the main ingredients in beer reacted in a microgravity environment.
Clements says this is a great example of how the commercialization of space can benefit any company back on Earth.
“The nice thing is that the space station really only opened for business a few years ago, so it’s just going to continue to mature,” he says. “I think we’re all trying to find the use cases for what we can do with microgravity and use those compelling use cases to build high-value products, and really build a space economy.” Space Tango’s next launch, during which they will send up four more experiments, is at the end of June.
Besides preparing for that launch, Clements is getting his team of almost a dozen ready for what he calls “Act 2” of the company’s progress. That includes a new office in Houston, TX, as well as potentially preparing to raise a bigger round of funding from institutional investors later this year.
Clements is also looking ahead to the future of space, when the space station might not be the only game in town.
“We’re looking at what our products and our service will look like in a post-space station world,” he says. “Our focus is really how do we utilize space for the benefit of humanity.”
Images courtesy of Space Tango and Anheuser-Busch