NASA Spinoff

NASA Technology

At Langley Research Center, Erik Weiser and his colleagues in the Advanced Materials and Processing Branch were working with a new substance for fabricating composites for use in supersonic aircraft. The team, however, was experiencing some frustration. Every time they tried to create a solid composite from the polyimide (an advanced polymer) material, it bubbled and foamed.

NASA Technology

Scientists have long been able to shift the direction of a laser beam, steering it toward a target, but often the strength and focus of the light is altered. For precision applications, where the quality of the beam cannot be compromised, scientists have typically turned to mechanical steering methods, redirecting the source of the beam by swinging the entire laser apparatus toward the target.

NASA Technology

During the Apollo Program, astronauts on the Moon encountered a small menace that created big problems: lunar dust. Similar to how tiny bits of Styrofoam behave on Earth—adhering to anything they touch—lunar dust sticks to spacesuits, spacecraft, tools, and equipment, and is extremely difficult to remove. The clingy nature of the substance is partly due to its electrostatic charge but is also due to its physical characteristics: The sharp, irregularly shaped grains have edges like burrs and feel like abrasive talcum powder to the touch.

NASA Technology

In the future, the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate hopes to use better-performing and lower-cost propulsion systems to send rovers, probes, and observers to places like Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. For such purposes, a new propulsion technology called the Advanced Materials Bipropellant Rocket (AMBR) was developed under NASA’s In-Space Propulsion Technology (ISPT) project, located at Glenn Research Center. As an advanced chemical propulsion system, AMBR uses nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer and hydrazine fuel to propel a spacecraft. Based on current research and development efforts, the technology shows great promise for increasing engine operation and engine lifespan, as well as lowering manufacturing costs.

NASA Technology

The U.S. X-Plane Program included the first-of-its-kind research in aerodynamics and astronautics with experimental vehicles, including the first aircraft to break the sound barrier; the first aircraft to fly in excess of 100,000, then 200,000, and then 300,000 feet; and the first aircraft to fly at three, four, five, and then six times the speed of sound.

At Glenn Research Center’s Ballistic Impact Facility, engineers study new materials and the ways that they react to sudden, brute force. Using high-speed cameras, various sizes of gas-powered guns, and a variety of other tools, these engineers learn about impacts, ways to build stronger, lighter materials, and how to avoid catastrophic events caused by high-pressure collisions. It was this laboratory that investigated the accident caused by the external tank foam striking the leading edge of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s wing, which led to that orbiter destructing during atmospheric reentry, causing the loss of the spacecraft and crew. The lab’s findings were integral to the safety changes initiated before the shuttle fleet was again operational.

In late 2009, a rocket traveling twice as fast as a speeding bullet crashed into the Moon as part of NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission. The resulting impact loosened a mixture of particles, dust, and debris that was analyzed by a host of instruments to confirm the presence of water on the Moon. Two of these instruments were indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) short wave infrared (SWIR) cameras, used to image the wavelengths between visible and thermal on the electromagnetic spectrum.

In March of 2009, the Kepler spacecraft was launched to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems outside of our own solar system, with a special emphasis on the detection of Earth-sized planets. Once Kepler fulfills its mission, the SIM Lite spacecraft will follow in its path to measure the masses of the planets discovered by Kepler and to study additional planets. Together, these missions will pave the way for the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF), an instrument designed to have imaging power 100 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope, to ultimately provide the first photographs of new planetary systems.

The amount of detail a telescope can see is directly related to the size of its mirrors. To look deep into space at galaxies over 13 billion light years away, NASA requires telescopes with very large mirrors. Scheduled to launch in 2014, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will have one 6.5-meter primary mirror as well as one 0.5-meter secondary mirror.

People often think of NASA’s research as pushing the boundaries of our universe—sending people, robots, and spacecraft into the dark reaches of the sky. But as NASA studies the universe, one of the most important planets it explores is Earth. Through a series of Earth-observing satellites, high-altitude research aircraft, and ground-based validation methods, NASA unveils many of the secrets of Earth’s climate, assessing everything from changes in ocean temperature and phytoplankton health, to the melting of the polar ice caps, to the levels of particulate matter in the atmosphere.


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