NASA Spinoff

NASA Technology

Earth is under a constant barrage of information from space. Whether from satellites orbiting our planet, spacecraft circling Mars, or probes streaking toward the far reaches of the Solar System, NASA collects massive amounts of data from its spacefaring missions each day. NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites, for example, provide daily imagery and measurements of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, vegetation, and more. The Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) collects all of that science data and processes, archives, and distributes it to researchers around the globe; EOSDIS recently reached a total archive volume of 4.5 petabytes. Try to store that amount of information in your standard, four-drawer file cabinet, and you would need 90 million to get the job done.

NASA Technology

In November 2006, after attempting to make a routine maneuver, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) reported unexpected errors. The onboard software switched to backup resources, and a 2-day lapse in communication took place between the spacecraft and Earth. When a signal was finally received, it indicated that MGS had entered safe mode, a state of restricted activity in which the computer awaits instructions from Earth. After more than 9 years of successful operation—gathering data and snapping pictures of Mars to characterize the planet’s land and weather—communication between MGS and Earth suddenly stopped.

NASA Technology

Getting a multitude of people to work together to manage processes across many organizations —for example, flight projects, research, technologies, or data centers and others—is not an easy task. Just ask Dr. Barry E. Jacobs, a research computer scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center. He helped NASA develop a process management solution that provided documenting tools for process developers and participants to help them quickly learn, adapt, test, and teach their views. Some of these tools included editable files for subprocess descriptions, document descriptions, role guidelines, manager worksheets, and references.

NASA Technology

What causes the Sun to change? And what are the impacts on our planet and our daily lives?

These are some of the top questions that the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is seeking answers to through a variety of missions to study the Sun. The most recent, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched in 2010, beams back 150 million bits of data per second—almost 50 times more science data than any other mission in NASA history. As a result, SDO’s instruments are giving solar scientists an unprecedented look at the Sun.

NASA Technology

Above the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Brazil, there is a dip in the Earth’s surrounding magnetic field called the South Atlantic Anomaly. Here, space radiation can reach into Earth’s upper atmosphere to interfere with the functioning of satellites, aircraft, and even the International Space Station. “The South Atlantic Anomaly is a hot spot of radiation that the space station goes through at a certain point in orbit,” Miria Finckenor, a physicist at Marshall Space Flight Center, describes, “If there’s going to be a problem with the electronics, 90 percent of that time, it is going to be in that spot.”

As the launch clock counts down, astronauts in the space shuttle prepare for the fastest ride of their lives. More powerful than any plane, train, or automobile, NASA space shuttles boast the world’s most sophisticated rocket engines: three 14-foot-long main engines that produce more than 375,000 pounds of thrust each. This thrust is approximately four times that of the largest commercial jet engine—and produces an extreme amount of vibration.

Knowing what will happen before it happens is no easy task. That is why new spacecraft and technology are constantly being tested and refined—including the J-2X engine, which may power the upper stage of future NASA rockets. Data from tests like these help to ensure that the next generation of space explorers will travel safely into orbit.

Much is made of the engineering that enables the complex operations of a rover examining the surface of Mars—and rightly so. But even the most advanced robotics are useless if, when the rover rolls out onto the Martian soil, a software glitch causes a communications breakdown and leaves the robot frozen. Whether it is a Mars rover, a deep space probe, or a space shuttle, space operations require robust, practically fail-proof programming to ensure the safe and effective execution of mission-critical control systems.

Monitoring the health of a machine can be just as tricky as monitoring the health of a human. Like in the human body, a variety of subsystems must work together for a machine to function properly—and a problem in one area can affect the well-being of another. For example, high blood pressure can weaken the arteries throughout the body, and weakened arteries can lead to a stroke or kidney damage. Just as a physician may prescribe medication, a special diet, or a certain exercise routine to maintain the health of a person, NASA employs a systems health management approach to ensure the successful operation of its rockets, crew vehicles, and other complex systems.

For the last 25 years, the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) Division at Ames esearch Center has provided extremely fast supercomputing resources, not only for NASA missions, but for scientific discoveries made outside of NASA as well. The computing environment at NAS includes four powerful high-performance computer systems: Pleiades, Columbia, Schirra, and RTJones. The collective capability of these supercomputers is immense, and in 2010, Pleiades was rated as the sixth most powerful computer in the world, based on a measure of the computer’s rate of execution.

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