The British Beatles sang about outer space. Now a Costa Rican beetle might actually get to go there.
Well, sorta. Costa Rican researchers think the unique properties that give the jewel scarab its space age, metallic appearance might hold the secrets to next generation satellite technology.
And now they want to send the beetle's exoskeleton on a rocket to the International Space Station to see how it will perform under the conditions of deep space.
Ok, so they're not really going to send a live insect into space, denying us the tantalizing possibility of some radioactive, space-mutated beetle returning to earth to fight Godzilla in a heavily populated city. But the plan to send the beetle's shiny elytra—the hardened forewings that distinguish a beetle from other insects—to the space station will still make it the coolest bug in the forest.
The research project is being spearheaded by Costa Rican scientist Andrés Mora Vargas, whose career as a professional stargazer started when he studied under veteran NASA astronaut and Costa Rican national hero Franklin Chang Diaz, the first and only Central American to go into space. Mora, who now lives in California, is working with young Costa Rican students and engineers as part of a larger team that's partnered with the University of Costa Rica's nanotechnology research center (CICIMA) and the Central America Space and Aeronautics Association, Costa Rica's little-known space program.
Costa Rica doesn't have launch capabilities, so getting to the International Space Station means hitching a ride from NanoRacks, a private U.S. company that facilitates space research. The roundtrip fare is around $50,000, money the Costa Rican team is still trying to scrape together.
The potential payback, however, is enormous, both for science and the future of Central America's only space program. Mora says if the research project is successful it could become the foundation for what he hopes will grow into a legitimate space and aeronautics research industry in Costa Rica, including Central America's first launch pad.
"The idea is for Costa Rica to start producing more interesting data that will help attract investment in technology and aeronautics," Mora told me.
The 10-year goal, he said, is to build a Costa Rican "space port" that can launch small payloads to lower altitudes in space for academic and commercial research. "If Elon Musk is doing it, I don't see why we couldn't," Mora says.
That all might sound like a lot of responsibility to rest on the wings of a tiny beetle. But this is no ordinary bug.
The exoskeleton of the Costa Rican jewel scarab, known on its tax returns and other formal occasions as the Chrysina aurigans, has the unique ability to reflect circularly polarized light, which is a fancy way of saying it's nearly invisible to all natural predators. To the human eye, the beetle appears to have a strange, shimmering metallic gleam that is impossible to replicate with a Crayola crayon.
Those curious light-bending wings are so lightweight and durable they could hold the formula for a synthetic next-gen satellite coating, if the material can withstand rocket launch, microgravity, space radiation, and other tests of endurance that most beetles never put themselves through. That's a lot of ifs, but such is science.
In any event, even if no future satellites are named after Tico beetles, the research and scientific process would be enormously valuable for Costa Rica's aspirations to build a modern space program. Part of the country's continuing evolution from a rural agricultural economy to a more sophisticated knowledge-based job market—a process that began when Intel moved to Costa Rica in 1997—means developing human capital. And a homegrown project that stimulates scientific curiosity and involves Costa Rican students in cutting-edge space research is a great way to start cultivating that future workforce, Mora says. That's why he called the space beetle project "Ditsö," which means "seed" in the Costa Rican indigenous tongue of the Bribri.
Jennifer Solís, a 24-year-old Costa Rican mechanical engineer on the Ditsö project, says outer space research was never a field she considered in college, because "it never seemed like a possibility." But now that the opportunity has presented itself, she's happy and proud to be a part of the team.
She thinks the mission's success will only inspire more young Costa Ricans to get involved in science and shoot for the stars—much the way that national hero Franklin Chang Diaz did for Mora's generation 35 years ago when he went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle.
"For cultural reasons, a lot of young women in high school or even college don't consider a career in engineering, and many times there aren't enough efforts made to get women engaged or curious in science," Solis told me. A space project like Ditsö could help change that, she hopes.
That's a lot of anticipated change that could come from the wings of a beetle. It's not exactly the butterfly effect, but it's close enough.