Future of a Central American Space Program Rides on the Wings of One Shiny Beetle

Brett Forsyth via Wikipedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Brett Forsyth via Wikipedia Commons // CC BY 2.0 / Brett Forsyth via Wikipedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

With its shimmering exoskeleton, the Costa Rican jewel scarab has always looked like a space age robot. But now scientists believe the beetle’s reflective properties may actually be useful in outer space—and back on Earth, it could be instrumental to the expansion of Central America’s only space program.

The scarab, known as Chrysina aurigans, can reflect circularly polarized light. On Earth, this superpower makes the beetle nearly invisible to predators. In space, it may help them resist radiation from the Sun. The kaleidoscopic beetle has already proven it can hold up to the strains of the stratosphere in a balloon. Now a group of Costa Rican scientists want to blast the beetle’s exoskeleton outside the atmosphere and test its durability on the International Space Station. Scientists hope the experiment could lead to the production of a new satellite coating able to ward off heat radiation and reflect unwanted light away from onboard cameras, improving image accuracy.

“If this is successful, the next step will then be to synthesize this material and see if that is able to reflect and absorb light in the same way that it does on the beetle,” Andrés Mora, the scientist behind the project, told mental_floss. Mora is with the Central America Space and Aeronautics Association (ACAE), the only space organization in the region. “If that happens, then we will have hit onto a new interesting material."

Mora (who studied under NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, the lone Central American to have been to space) and his team of students and volunteers have already eaten through their very limited funds to design the project. They will need to raise around $30,000 to secure the beetle a spot aboard a rocket with NanoRacks, a U.S. company that carries projects to the ISS. Mora hopes to have funding for a launch before the end of 2016 either through grants or a crowdfunding campaign.

Much more than satellite armor is riding on this project. The Costa Ricans behind the mission plan to use the beetle experiment as the first iteration of a biannual program that will send student experiments to the ISS. The project, called Ditsö, is just one of several space engineering projects underway at the ACAE. Officials hope the new initiatives will promote the creation of a full-fledged government space program in Costa Rica.


“We need to take some baby steps with these first few projects, but then we want to develop a long-term satellite program,” ACAE president Carlos Alvarado said.

ACAE’s first step is to increase educational opportunities for Central American students interested in space technology through projects like Ditsö. Another student-led project will launch the region’s first picosatellite in 2016. The miniature satellite will collect daily carbon dioxide readings to help study the long-term effects of climate change, and will serve as a test run for larger satellite projects down the road.

In the future, Alvarado hopes to have a regional launchpad to send small payloads into space and help Central American governments tackle local problems like climate change, poaching, and drug trafficking through satellite monitoring.

"In 10 years, I think that Costa Rica will be preparing for the launch of its first full-fledged satellite,” Alvarado said. "I dream to have at least one big aeronautics company established in Costa Rica and to have a functioning space program with a budget."