‘The reason I want to explore beyond the world as we know it is simple: the allure of the unknown is far more powerful than the comfort of the known. While many people may think space is far away, let me remind you that we are in space, hurtling around our star at over 100 000 km/h. In fact, we are living on arguably one of the most unpredictable planets in the Solar System due to the unique life, in particular human life, that is shaping the conditions here on both a personal and global level. Embrace the unknown, for it is where discoveries lie in wait and dreams take flight. In the pursuit of knowledge and a future we can be proud of, let curiosity be your compass, determination your fuel, and passion your guiding star,’ says Dr Adriana Marais, a research fellow at the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University.

She is also a director at the Foundation for Space Development Africa, preparing Africa’s first mission to the Moon, the Africa2Moon Project. In addition, she is scientific moderator on space resources with the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator and chair of space sciences at Tod’Aérs Aeronautics and Space Research. Her popular science writing on topics from quantum biology to space exploration has been widely published, among others in Nature and HuffPost. In 2020, she was among 5 global finalists for Women in Tech’s the Most Disruptive Woman in Tech Award.

Dr Marais has a background in theoretical physics, and her PhD and postdoctoral research focused on quantum effects in biology and the origins of the building blocks of life in space. Her main interests include quantum physics and philosophy of science, photosynthesis and bio-inspired technologies, the origins of life, the origins of the building blocks of life in space, asteroid resources and technologies to extract these.

‘Essentially, what I do involves exploring the world in which we find ourselves. Perhaps the greatest mystery we find here is life itself. On one hand, I’m fascinated by how quantum mechanics, the underlying principles governing the behaviour of things like atoms and molecules at the smallest scales, play a role in biological processes, potentially even shaping the very essence of life. Life on Earth learned really early on how to harness quantum effects to produce fuel from sunlight, carbon dioxide and an electron source – perhaps as much as 4 billion years ago in the form of the first photosynthetic bacteria. On the other hand, I’m deeply intrigued by the potential origins of life beyond Earth, investigating how the building blocks of life, things like amino acids that make up all proteins, have formed in the vastness of space. When the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope is complete, we will have a powerful tool to look for more such molecular ingredients of life in space.’

Space Development Africa
Dr Marais talks about the work done at the Foundation for Space Development Africa. ‘While it’s exciting that South Africa will be relaying signals for NASA’s return to the Moon, as we did in the Apollo era, and that we are a signatory to play a role in the Chinese-Russian Lunar Base planned for later this decade, we believe it is time for Africa to expand its role in space exploration.’

She explains that the Africa2Moon project is a fundamentally collaborative project inspired by the SKA that brings together leading experts to deploy an African designed and built low-cost, low frequency radio telescope to be deployed on the far side of the Moon. The plan is for an array of balls containing antennas to be ejected onto the lunar surface, forming a remotely implementable radio telescope to perform first time science below 10 MHz, as well as to inspire increased participation in space exploration by young people in Africa.

‘Africa2Moon could be the first African built technology to perform first-time science on another celestial body. Our simple design aims to demonstrate that with little finance but much tenacity, collaboration and African skill, we can literally reach the Moon and inspire other Africans to reach for the stars. We want African children to look up at the Moon, and feel a sense of belonging. We want data from the Africa2Moon telescope accessible to researchers across the continent, towards driving increased participation in space exploration and STEM in Africa.’

She quips: ‘Innovating in resource-constrained environments is what we in Africa do best.’

Challenges on Earth and in space
‘The challenge we face as a society is to balance ambitious goals that inspire us to dream, like the first human communities on the Moon and Mars, while simultaneously uplifting people living in harsh conditions here on Earth and encouraging a rapidly growing population of youth to get excited about exploring and learning.

‘In 2019, I founded Proudly Human to take up the challenge of developing solutions to live off-world, while applying this knowledge to improving standards of living for people on Earth. The Off-World Project is a series of habitation experiments, building off-grid infrastructure and communities in the most extreme environments on the planet – from the deserts to the poles and under the oceans. Each experiment will last several weeks, generate exploration-driven innovation and research, and be filmed for global audience through a documentary series.’ The project will collect data on groups of experts setting up infrastructure from scratch, and living and working together in extreme environments, to prepare for life beyond Earth, but also to better understand community structures on Earth.

Dr Marais continues: ‘The infrastructure we need live beyond Earth will be focused on technology-enabled resource efficiency due to harsh conditions and the distance from Earth. Living off-world necessitates the transformation of “waste” into resources. Human settlement of the Moon and Mars will be an important demonstration of community resilience in resource-constrained conditions. The tools and the mindset to achieve this are just as critical for space as for a resilient future here on Earth, where a growing population of humans are competing for Earth’s finite resources in the face of extreme weather events, pandemics and the resulting conflicts.’

She says the technology we require to inhabit Mars already exists. ‘Living in the ISS or even on the Moon is more challenging from an engineering perspective than setting up camp on a rocky planet with significant gravity and an atmosphere. However, with Mars at on average over 200 million kilometres away from Earth, the remoteness will define an approach to infrastructure choices focused on circular resource utilisation and sustainability, in a way that is different to living on the ISS or on the Moon.’

Blockchain-based economic system
Dr Marais is currently working on a second PhD on ‘a blockchain-based economic system for off-world environments’. About this work she comments: ‘Just months after the financial crash of 2008 triggered by increasing deregulation of the industry, the first digital currency to employ cryptography to solve the problem of double-spending without the requirement for a central trusted third-party regulator was proposed. That currency was Bitcoin, now valued at over a trillion US dollars. The technology underlying this decentralised capability is a distributed ledger, or blockchain. Transactions are recorded in blocks that are linked and secured by cryptography. These records are verified and stored across a network making the ledger, as well as the rules governing the transactions, resistant to modification.’

She says one compelling application of blockchain is in securing online identity. ‘In this context, blockchain enables individuals to own and control their identities online in a decentralised personal data management system where records are verified and stored across a network making the ledger resistant to modification. They can access the service irrespective of the nation in which they happen to be born, or perhaps in the future on whatever planet or moon, with an internet connection.’

Dr Marais continues: ‘Another application of blockchain is in the management of essential resources. Billions of humans on Earth live without access to adequate shelter and nutrition, clean air and water, and also the reliable power and communications systems that have become important tools to participate in society. A decentralised system of monitoring resource consumption may be a start towards addressing these issues.’

Indeed, ‘a decentralised economic system that leverages blockchain technology to facilitate transactions and manage resources may prove indispensable in extraterrestrial environments. As humans venture further into space and establish settlements on other celestial bodies, there will be a pressing need for secure life-support infrastructure to support these communities. Blockchain technology offers a promising solution to the unique challenges of managing resources in space. By recording all resource transformations, or transactions, on a blockchain, we can realise a resource management system that is decentralised, immutable and transparent. These are features we would want in an extreme and resource-constrained environment, where organisations of centralised control do not necessarily exist or cannot be relied on, and the survival of the community depends on the secure, equitable and reliable functioning of a life-support system.’

Dr Marais comments on the value of NITheCS to the local scientific community: ‘Since meeting the Interim Director of NITheCS, Professor Francesco Petruccione, when enrolling for my MSc in Durban back in 2007, he has always supported new ideas. I am delighted that we are still collaborating on projects based in Africa and beyond Earth under the NITheCS platform, which aims to stimulate excellence in diverse fields of science in South Africa and across the continent. The future of science is interdisciplinary, and I am proud to have NITheCS on board as a partner supporting so many of the projects with which I am involved.’