Nov 18, 2021 - Business
5 questions with IBM's Naeem Altaf
Photo illustration of two talk bubbles, with Naeem Altaf on the right.
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Courtesy of IBM

Naeem Altaf leads IBM's Space Tech Hub team in Austin, where he works to solve our biggest space problems, including the growing challenges of space debris.

Driving the news: He also explores quantum computing for opening new realms of possibilities for the new space age. Altaf's team partners with space agencies, universities and space tech companies, and he has led work for IBM in collaboration with NASA and SETI for the Frontier Development Lab program.

He spoke to Axios about the future of space tech and his work at IBM:

1. How has Austin's tech scene changed since you first started at IBM 20 years ago, in general and as it relates to space tech?

Austin has become a leading tech hub for innovation. We have a diverse community, a healthy ecosystem for startups and innovation and a leading educational institute for tech.
Major companies are moving their headquarters here. Companies like Tesla, SpaceX, Blue Origin and FireFly give a huge boost to next generation technologies. Space is a future $1 trillion industry. Areas in Texas are now at the forefront to help conquer the next frontier.

2. How will this work in space help us here on Earth?

The work we are doing with NASA for ISS data can be applied to business scenarios here on Earth. For example: In manufacturing, machinery can be equipped with sensors and AI and machine learning capabilities that can detect and avoid hazards in real time and prevent humans from entering unsafe environments.
Companies that use kiosk services can automate remote distribution and management of their kiosk-based applications to help keep them operating even when they aren't connected or have poor network connectivity.

3. Is testing DNA in space like COVID testing?

This is not like the PCR COVID tests. The only way to do variant testing is with DNA sequencing. NASA astronauts use the MinION, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, to sequence DNA in space. The tiny, plug-and-play sequencer is about the size of a large candy bar.
This tech is being used in a parallel manner similar to the COVID PCR tests where viral RNA is amplified and detected with the MinION.

4. What's next for commercial investment in space?

Building ecosystems for the commercialization of low Earth orbit, such as commercial space stations … providing global network connectivity from space and putting compute and storage in low Earth orbit.

5. Why is space junk such a big issue?

Space junk or space debris includes stages from rockets, defunct satellites, smaller bits and pieces, basically human-made objects, floating in the low Earth orbit.
More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris are in low Earth orbit right now. … Collisions with these small objects can cause major damage to satellites, the International Space Station, telescopes in the orbit and pose a potential danger to space flights taking humans and cargo to ISS and future space stations and space missions.
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