NASA Spinoff

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Aeroponics, the process of growing plants suspended in air without soil or media, provides clean, efficient, and rapid food production. Crops can be planted and harvested year-round without interruption, and without contamination from soil, pesticides, and residue. Aeroponic systems also reduce water usage by 98 percent, fertilizer usage by 60 percent, and eliminate pesticide usage altogether. Plants grown in aeroponic systems have been shown to absorb more minerals and vitamins, making the plants healthier and potentially more nutritious.

altThe suspended system also has other advantages. Since the growing environment can be kept clean and sterile, the chances of spreading plant diseases and infections commonly found in soil and other growing media are greatly reduced. Also, seedlings do not stretch or wilt while their roots are forming, and once the roots are developed, the plants can be easily moved into any type of growing media without the risk of transplant shock. Lastly, plants tend to grow faster in a regulated aeroponic environment, and the subsequent ease of transplant to a natural medium means a higher annual crop yield. For example, tomatoes are traditionally started in pots and transplanted to the ground at least 28 days later; growers using an aeroponic system can transplant them just 10 days after starting the plants in the growing chamber. This accelerated cycle produces six tomato crops per year, rather than the traditional one to two crop cycles.

These benefits, along with the great reduction in weight by eliminating soil and much of the water required for plant growth, illustrate why this technique has found such enthusiastic support from NASA. Successful long-term missions into deep space will require crews to grow some of their own food during flight. Aeroponic crops are also a potential source of fresh oxygen and clean drinking water, and every ounce of food produced and water conserved aboard a spacecraft reduces payload weight, decreasing launch costs and freeing room for other cargo.

altIn 1997, NASA teamed with AgriHouse Inc., of Berthoud, Colorado, to develop an aeroponic experiment for use on the Mir space station. Richard Stoner II, founder and president of AgriHouse, had worked with aeroponics since the late 1980s, and developed and patented a method for aeroponic crop production. AgriHouse utilized the research direction of BioServe Space Technologies, a nonprofit, NASA-sponsored Research Partnership Center located at the University of Colorado in Boulder, to assist its efforts in developing its aeroponic technology for space flight (Spinoff 2006). BioServe has extensive experience in space flight, having flown payload experiments on 27 shuttle missions, 2 Mir missions (one being the above-mentioned), and several missions on the International Space Station (ISS).

To continue NASA’s development of aeroponic technologies and offer a unique educational experience to students around the world, an experiment designed and built by BioServe recently flew to the ISS aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-118, in August 2007. This experiment, designed by Heike Winter-Sederroff, assistant professor of Plant Gravitational Genomics at North Carolina State University, will advance the science of growing food during long-term space expeditions and further the development of heartier varieties of tomato plants for farmers and gardeners on Earth. The experiment is also part of an educational effort involving as many as 15,000 K-12 tudents and teachers around the world, who will compare the growth and development of tomato plants in space with similar experiments being conducted in their own classrooms.

Essential to the success of this research was ensuring the seeds were protected on the way to the ISS, and at the same time, unable to germinate before the start of the experiment. BioServe identified an ideal medium for this transport while meeting with representatives from AeroGrow International Inc., also of Boulder, Colorado. AeroGrow’s proprietary Seed Pod technology, developed for use in its AeroGarden kitchen gardening appliance, was admirably suited to the task in that it encased the seeds in a plastic framework, and thereby protected them during transit and ensured germination would not take place until proscribed by the experiment.

“AeroGrow is proud that the technologies that make our garden so simple and easy to use are being tested for growing fresh food in space as well,” said Michael Bissonnette, founder and chairman of AeroGrow. “We’re thrilled to contribute to the education of so many students, and are looking forward to introducing the AeroGarden in classrooms and educational environments around the world.”

Product Outcome
altThe use of AeroGrow Seed Pods on the ISS can be seen as the fitting fruition of an idea that sprouted several years ago. Bissonnette and colleague John Thompson were inspired by NASA experiments using aeroponic gardening to grow lettuce. The experiments reinforced that plants grown aeroponically did so significantly faster than those grown by any other method. Bissonnette and his team started working to capture this technology in a clean, simple, quick, and dependable appliance that would work in homes.

More than up to the task, AeroGrow’s scientific board boasts a deep background in horticulture and aeroponics, and a depth of understanding that has helped the AeroGarden achieve such great success. For instance, Dr. Henry A. Robitaille holds undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate degrees in horticulture from the University of Maryland and Michigan State University. Notably, he helped design and implement hydroponic growing systems in The Land Pavilion at Epcot Center in the Walt Disney World Resort, collaborating extensively with the NASA Controlled Ecological Life Support System research team at Kennedy Space Center.

Adapting a process as complicated as aeroponics to an automatic home appliance proved a considerable challenge and yielded impressive results. The more than 15 resulting patent applications include specialized lighting systems, nutrient tablets that nourish the plants and ensure standard pH levels regardless of municipal water supply, and the Plug & Grow Seed Pods that recently found their way to the ISS. The appeal of the AeroGarden has been proven in recent years, as the company has shipped over 350,000 gardens.

To this success, Bissonnette reflected, “We have succeeded in every retail channel of distribution we’ve rolled into, including independent culinary stores, national department store chains, independent lawn and garden and hardware chains, and have just concluded successful tests with multiple big-box retailers.” Though still largely rooted in Internet and infomercial sales, AeroGardens are now found in more than 4,300 storefronts. AeroGrow has set its sights on international markets while continuing to refine and enlarge its product line. Now applied in homes and schools nationwide, and with its Seed Pods seeing application on the ISS, the fruits of NASA’s work in past decades are made available in the simplicity of a kitchen countertop gardening appliance.

AeroGarden™, Seed Pod™, and Plug & Grow™ are trademarks of AeroGrow International Inc.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

If you wish to explore a Martian landscape without leaving your armchair, a few simple clicks around the NASA Web site will lead you to panoramic photographs taken from the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Many of the technologies that enable this spectacular Mars photography have also inspired advancements in photography here on Earth, including the panoramic camera (Pancam) and its housing assembly, designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cornell University for the Mars missions. Mounted atop each rover, the Pancam mast assembly (PMA) can tilt a full 180 degrees and swivel 360 degrees, allowing for a complete, highly detailed view of the Martian landscape.

altThe rover Pancams take small, 1 megapixel (1 million pixel) digital photographs, which are stitched together into large panoramas that sometimes measure 4 by 24 megapixels. The Pancam software performs some image correction and stitching after the photographs are transmitted back to Earth. Different lens filters and a spectrometer also assist scientists in their analyses of infrared radiation from the objects in the photographs. These photographs from Mars spurred developers to begin thinking in terms of larger and higher quality images: super-sized digital pictures, or gigapixels, which are images composed of 1 billion or more pixels.

Gigapixel images are more than 200 times the size captured by today’s standard 4 megapixel digital camera. Although originally created for the Mars missions, the detail provided by these large photographs allows for many purposes, not all of which are limited to extraterrestrial photography.

The technology behind the Mars rover PMAs inspired Randy Sargent at Ames Research Center and Illah Nourbakhsh at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to look at ways consumers might be able to use similar technology for more “down-to-Earth” photography and virtual exploration.

In 2005, Sargent and Nourbakhsh created the Global Connection Project, a collaboration of scientists from CMU, Google Inc., and the National Geographic Society, whose vision is to encourage better understanding of the Earth’s cultures through images. This vision inspired the development of their Gigapan products.

After seeing what the Pancams and PMAs could do, Sargent created a prototype for a consumer-version of a robotic camera platform. He worked with Rich LeGrand of Charmed Labs LLC, in Austin, Texas, to design and manufacture the Gigapan robotic platform for standard digital cameras.

Product Outcome
altThe Gigapan robotic platform is, in essence, an intelligent tripod that enables an amateur photographer to set up detailed shots with ease. A user sets the upper-left and lower-right corners of the panorama, and the Gigapan simply will capture as many images as the user or scene requires. With this level of automation, a 500-picture panorama is no more complicated than a 4-picture panorama; only the camera’s memory limits the size of the panorama.

The Global Connection Project also created two other Gigapan products: a Gigapan Web site and panorama stitching software born from the Ames Vision Workbench, an image processing and computer vision library developed by the Autonomous Systems and Robotics Area in the Intelligent Systems Division.

The robotic platform works with the stitching software by precisely manipulating and aligning each shot ahead of time. The Gigapan software complements the robotic platform by arranging the parts of the panorama (potentially hundreds of individual photographs) into a grid where they are stitched together into a single, very large Gigapan image.

The Global Connection Project won a 2006 “Economic Development Award” from the Tech Museum Awards for its work in creating photographic overlays for Google Earth of areas affected by natural disasters. Government workers and concerned citizens used the images on Google Earth to see which areas needed help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

On the Gigapan Web site, a user can display a wide bird’s eye panorama and can then zoom in with impressive bug’s eye high-quality detail. On first impression, a panoramic photograph on Gigapan’s site might seem to be simply a wide-angle cityscape of a temple in Kathmandu. With each successive click, however, the user can zoom deeper and deeper into the photo, revealing more and more clear details: a monk hanging prayer flags on the roof of the temple and the Tibet Kitchen Restaurant and Bar a few blocks behind the temple, with a sign extolling passersby to taste their gourmet food.

As part of a continuing effort to connect people and cultures, the Global Connection Project encourages all users to upload their own panoramas from around the world on the Gigapan site. Users can explore such varied landscapes as a temple in Nepal, the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, a market in Guatemala, or the Boston skyline from the Charles River. Because of the much greater number of pixels, the resolution is unprecedented; the Gigapan software and robotic platforms can theoretically produce prints on 40-foot-wide paper without any loss in quality.

Whether or not photographers use the Gigapan mounts and software, anyone can upload their panoramas to the Gigapan Web site. Many users of Gigapan have uploaded standard panorama photographs, as well (although the site suggests photographs be at least 50 megabytes). This is just fine with the Gigapan and the Global Connection Project coordinators, whose aim is simply to encourage exploration and understanding of the various cultures in our world.

The Fine Family Foundation is sponsoring work with the Global Connection Project to enable botanists, geologists, archeologists, and other scientists around the world to document different aspects of the Earth’s cultures and ecosystems using Gigapan technology. Scientists are using Gigapan to document life in the upper redwood forest canopy in California, volcanoes in Hawaii, and glaciers in Norway.

There are also educational uses for the Gigapan: The Pennsylvania Board of Tourism uses Gigapan for Web site visitors wanting to explore Civil War sites virtually. Also, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Global Connection Project has distributed Gigapan to students in Pittsburgh, South Africa, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, encouraging them to photograph their local culture and share those panoramas with the world. “The hope is that students will be able to have deeper connections to other cultures,” said Sargent.

A time-lapse Gigapan robotic mount is now in development, and a professional unit for larger SLR-style cameras may be released before the end of 2008.

GigapanTM is a trademark of Carnegie Mellon University.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

While developing a measurement acquisition system to be used to retrofit aging aircraft with vehicle health monitoring capabilities, Langley Research Center’s Dr. Stanley E. Woodard and Bryant D. Taylor, of ATK Space, developed a novel wireless fluid-level measurement system.

Current fluid-level measurement methods, which see widespread application, have significant drawbacks, including limited applicability of any one fluid-level sensor design; necessity for each sensor to be supplied power via a direct electrical connection and have a physical connection to extract a measurement; and need for a data channel and signal conditioning electronics dedicated to each sensor. Use of typical wired systems results in other shortcomings, such as logistics for adding or replacing sensors, weight, and the potential for electrical arcing and wire degradations.

altThe wireless fluid-level measurement system that Woodard and Taylor developed, however, uses sensors that are simple: passive inductor-capacitor circuits. The system is laid out in seven U.S. and international patents and patents-pending, collectively resulting in an inexpensive and safe wireless fuel measurement system that can be used to measure the volume of any fluid at any orientation. A key safety feature unique to the system is that it allows the sensors to be completely encapsulated so that the fuel level can be measured with neither the fuel nor fuel vapors coming in contact with any electrical components of the system, thus eliminating the potential for combustible fuel vapors being ignited by arcing from damaged electrical components.

Woodard explains, “This technology eliminates many of the causes of the TWA Flight 800 and Swissair Flight 111 accidents. These accidents resulted in the loss of 459 lives. In both cases, damage to a direct electrical line from the aircraft power system to a fuel probe inside a fuel tank containing combustible fuel vapors was a critical link in a chain of events that led to these tragedies.”

The sensor is also not subject to the mechanical failure possible when float and lever-arm systems are used—system sensors are powered by oscillating magnetic fields; once electrically excited, each sensor produces its own magnetic field response, the frequency of which corresponds to the amount of fluid within the sensor’s electric field. The system can be used to measure any fluid in any container, including those on aircraft, cars, boats, trains, trucks, or even the space shuttle and satellites. In addition to the safety features, the system is able to automatically recalibrate for new fuels, a feature that is becoming more attractive as the number of flex-fuel vehicles increases.

One especially key advantage of this technology is that it can be used with any system requiring fluid-level measurement, regardless of the fluid being measured. The sensor design can be modified for measuring the level of any fluid or non-gaseous fluid substance that can be stored in a nonconductive reservoir. The inventors demonstrated this by measuring levels of ammonia, liquid nitrogen, salt water, tap water, transmission fluid, bleach, sugar water, and hydrochloric acid—all elements that would easily destroy most electronics. The system’s ability to take accurate measurements of the level of non-liquids has been tested with powdered sugar and ground corn. Perhaps most importantly, it has been used to measure the levels of a variety of petroleum products, which led to its first commercial application.

altThe NASA technology was of interest to Tidewater Sensors LLC, of Newport News, Virginia, because of its many advantages over conventional fuel management systems, including its ability to provide an accurate measurement of volume while the boat is experiencing any rocking motion due to waves or people moving about on the boat. Like a conventional float gauge, it is quick and easy to install, but unlike the float gauge, this device has no moving parts, is sealed from the elements, and allows the boat owner to use any size or shape tank and still get an accurate reading. The system also introduces no electronics into the tank and has no connections at the sensor that need grounding. These advantages led the company to license the novel fluid-level measurement system from NASA for marine applications.

Product Outcome
The Tidewater Sensors commercial version of the NASA measurement system is available under the name TS1500. The non-moving probe contains both the antenna and the sensor as a single unit that is easily interfaced to any of the standard fuel display gauges used. The TS1500 is a simple, safe, easy-to-operate tool that prevents expensive motor damage and helps prevent boaters from getting stranded due to motor failure.

If the TS1500 detects water, it alerts the operator with both an audible and visual alarm: the machine beeps and the fuel gauge fluctuates rapidly between empty and full. Unlike other water sensors, which require that the water be mixed with the fuel and the boat be run for a few minutes before they will operate, this sensor will alert the operator before he leaves the dock. This means that boat operators can avoid an engine-stopping combination of water and fuel in open waters. The TS1500 sounds the alarm as soon as the engine is turned on, if water is present, or as soon as the sensor touches the water.

The product boasts several other advantages over traditional float systems or capacitor sensors: it is highly accurate; senses water in gas, oil, or diesel; and uses a specially formulated rubber gasket capable of withstanding ethanol, as opposed to typical methods that provide rough measurements of fluid in the tank and use cork or butyl rubber stoppers that corrode when exposed to ethanol, leading to leaks. The TS1500 also provides linear measurements of tank capacity, as opposed to the swinging arm of a non-linear measurement, which leaves the needle indicating full for a longer period of time than may be accurate and then moves quickly toward the “E.”

Tidewater Sensors has already built and field tested prototype sensors. Testing took place on boats ranging from 20 to 32 feet long, operating on coastal waters between Delaware and North Carolina. For some high-profile testing, the sensors were installed on the Hampton City (home to Langley) Fire Division’s 30-foot boat, which patrols all 64 miles of the Hampton area shoreline, and the Hampton City Police boat. Sensors were also installed on a Donzi ZF powerboat owned by John Isley of the nationally syndicated morning radio show, John Boy and Billy’s “The Big Show.” With this high-profile testing, and boasting so many clear benefits, the NASA technology is sure to find wide commercial acceptance.

The Mobile Launcher Platform at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is a two-story steel structure that provides a transportable launch base for the space shuttle. The main body of the platform is 160 feet long, 135 feet wide, and 25 feet high. When completely unloaded, the platform weighs about 8 million pounds. When it is carrying the weight of an unfueled space shuttle, it weighs about 11 million pounds.

The heat generated by wind resistance and engine exhaust during the launch of a space shuttle is potentially damaging to the casings on the solid rocket boosters, which provide over two-thirds of the initial thrust needed to propel the spacecraft into orbit. To protect this important equipment, in the 1980s, engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center developed a spray-on insulating process that was applied to the boosters’ forward assembly, systems tunnel covers, and aft skirt. The process involved mixing nine chemicals into an adhesive, and then, acting quickly during a 5-hour window, applying the material. The materials were costly, and if the application was interrupted or not completed within the 5-hour window, the batch was lost. In addition to this drawback, the strength of the material was difficult to regulate, so it often chipped off during flight and splashdown, when the reusable boosters are dropped into the sea. Adding to the downside, two of the nine ingredients were harmful to the environment.

During the Mercury missions, astronauts ate terrible food: freeze- dried powders and semi-liquids in aluminum tubes. Decades later, though, astronauts now have meals prepared by celebrity chefs and access to everyday items like shrimp cocktail, stir-fried chicken, and fettuccine alfredo. While the culinary selection has improved, the developers of these gourmet delights are still faced with a number of challenges.

Earth from space—swirling wisps of white against a backdrop of deep azure, punctuated with brown and green swatches of land, all etched on one orb surrounded by black space, floating, seemingly isolated, but teeming with humanity and other forms of life. It is an iconic image, first captured November 10, 1967, by the Applications Technology Satellite (ATS)-3, an unmanned craft conducting payload experiments and examining the space environment. Since then, astronauts and spacecraft have sent back hundreds of pictures of Earth, and each one has had the same breathtaking effect.

Short wavelength solar radiation in the space environment just outside of the Earth’s atmosphere produces atomic oxygen. This gas reacts with spacecraft polymers, causing gradual oxidative thinning of the protective layers of orbiting objects, like satellites and the International Space Station, which maintain low-Earth orbit directly in the area where the corrosive gas is most present.

An educational software product designed by the Educational Technology Team at Ames Research Center is bringing actual aeronautical work performed by NASA engineers to the public in an interactive format for the very first time, in order to introduce future generations of engineers to the fundamentals of flight.

In today's fast-paced business world, there is often more information available to researchers than there is time to search through it. Data mining has become the answer to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, as companies must be able to quickly locate specific pieces of information from large collections of data. Perilog , a suite of data-mining tools, searches for hidden patterns in large databases to determine previously unrecognized relationships. By retrieving and organizing contextually relevant data from any sequence of terms from genetic data to musical notes the software can intelligently compile information about desired topics from databases.

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