NASA Spinoff

On October 14, 1947, Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager made history when he became the first pilot in an officially documented flight to ever break the sound barrier. Flying a Bell XS-1 test jet over the Mohave Desert, Yeager hit approximately 700 miles per hour, when a loud boom thundered across the barren landscape as he crossed from subsonic to supersonic speeds. The sonic boom, akin to the wake of the plane’s shockwaves in the air, occurred at Mach 1—the speed of sound (named after Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist whose work focused on the Doppler effect and acoustics).

Glenn Research Center’s Mechanical Components Branch routinely conducts research on transmissions and gearing for advanced gas turbines, promoting their safety, weight reduction, and reliability. The Mechanical Components Branch is staffed by both NASA and U.S. Army Research Laboratory employees, and the research program is designed and executed to meet the needs of both organizations. The researchers have developed a world-class set of instruments and test devices, including a spiral bevel or face gear test rig for testing thermal behavior, surface fatigue, strain, vibration, and noise; a full-scale, 500-horsepower helicopter mainrotor transmission testing stand; a gear rig that allows fundamental studies of the dynamic behavior of gear systems and gear noise; and a high-speed helical gear test for analyzing thermal behavior for rotorcraft. These are just a few examples of the highly specialized equipment the researchers at the Mechanical Components Branch have at their disposal.

Ice accumulation is a serious safety hazard for aircraft. The presence of ice on airplane surfaces prevents the even flow of air, which increases drag and reduces lift. Ice on wings is especially dangerous during takeoff, when a sheet of ice the thickness of a compact disc can reduce lift by 25 percent or more. Ice accumulated on the tail of an aircraft (a spot often out of the pilot’s sight) can throw off a plane’s balance and force the craft to pitch downward, a phenomenon known as a tail stall.

Nanotubes are sheets of graphite, one atom thick, rolled into seamless cylinders, with an exterior diameter in the range of nanometers. For a sense of perspective, if you were to split a human hair into 50,000 independent strands, a nanotube would be about the size of one of those strands.

Developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center, the Macro-Fiber Composite (MFC) is an innovative, low-cost piezoelectric device designed for controlling vibration, noise, and deflections in composite structural beams and panels. It was created for use on helicopter blades and airplane wings as well as for the shaping of aerospace structures at NASA.

When NASA programs need the ultimate reliability to power deep space probes, they repeatedly select thermoelectric (TE) devices as a system component. TE devices heat, cool, and generate electricity when a temperature differential is provided between the two module faces. Using radioactive isotope Plutonium 238 and TE devices to convert waste heat into electricity, NASA has depended on radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) in 25 U.S. missions since 1961.

KeyMaster Technologies, Inc., develops and markets specialized, hand-held X-ray fluorescence (XRF) instruments and unique tagging technology used to identify and authenticate materials or processes. NASA first met with this Kennewick, Washington-based company as the Agency began seeking companies to develop a hand-held instrument that would detect data matrix symbols on parts covered by paint and other coatings. Since the Federal Aviation Administration was also searching for methods to detect and eliminate the use of unapproved parts, it recommended that NASA and KeyMaster work together to develop a technology that would benefit both agencies.

Two-dimensional data matrix symbols, which contain encoded letters and numbers, are permanently etched on items for identification. They can store up to 100 times more information than traditional bar codes. While the symbols provide several advantages over bar codes, once they are covered by paint they can no longer be read by optical scanners. Since most products are painted eventually, this presents a problem for industries relying on the symbols for identification and tracking.

From 1994 to 1996, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center conducted a Center Director's Discretionary Fund research effort to apply artificial intelligence technologies to the health management of plant equipment and space propulsion systems. Through this effort, NASA established a business relationship with Quality Monitoring and Control (QMC), of Kingwood, Texas, to provide hardware modeling and artificial intelligence tools. Very detailed and accurate Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) analysis and algorithms were jointly created, which identified several missing, critical instrumentation needs for adequately evaluating the engine health status. One of the missing instruments was a liquid oxygen (LOX) flow measurement. This instrument was missing since the original SSME included a LOX turbine flow meter that failed during a ground test, resulting in considerable damage for NASA. New balanced flow meter technology addresses this need with robust, safe, and accurate flow metering hardware.

Engineers are tasked with designing new systems every day to meet changing or unexpected technical requirements. After the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, NASA engineers embarked on a complete overhaul of many of their long-standing quality systems and procedures. When the official cause of the accident was determined to be an O-ring failure in the right Solid Rocket Booster, NASA's Shuttle Program initiated a thorough redesign of the rocket boosters clevis ends, which are the O-ring's mating surfaces.


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