NASA Spinoff

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

In applications where stress on a structure may vary widely and have an unknown impact on integrity, a common engineering strategy has been overbuilding to ensure a sufficiently robust design. While this may be appropriate in applications where weight concerns are not paramount, space applications demand a bare minimum of mass, given astronomical per-pound launch costs. For decades, the preferred solution was the tactic of disassembly and investigation between flights. Knowing there must be a better way, Dr. Mark Froggatt, of Langley Research Center, explored alternate means of monitoring stresses and damage to the space shuttle.

While a tear-it-apart-and-have-a-look strategy was effective, it was also a costly and time consuming process that risked further stresses through the very act of disassembly and reassembly. An alternate way of monitoring the condition of parts under the enormous stresses of space flight was needed. Froggatt and his colleagues at Langley built an early-warning device to provide detailed information about even minuscule cracks and deformations by etching a group of tiny lines, or grating, on a fiber optic cable five-thousandths of an inch thick with ultraviolet light. By then gluing the fiber to the side of a part, such as a fuel tank, and shining a laser beam down its length, reflected light indicated which gratings were under stress. Inferring this data from measurements in light rather than in bonded gauges saved additional weight. Various shuttle components now employ the ultrasonic dynamic vector stress sensor (UDVSS), allowing stress detection by measuring light beamed from a built-in mini-laser.

altBy measuring changes in dynamic directional stress occurring in a material or structure, and including phase-locked loop, synchronous amplifier, and contact probe, the UDVSS proved especially useful among manufacturers of aerospace and automotive structures for stress testing and design evaluation. Engineers could ensure safety in airplanes and spaceships with a narrower, not overbuilt, margin of safety. For this development, in 1997, Discover Magazine named Froggatt a winner in the “Eighth Annual Awards for Technological Innovation” from more than 4,000 entries.

Froggatt continued his work in monitoring stresses of fiber optic components, accessories, and networks through optical monitoring at Luna Technologies, a division of Luna Innovations Incorporated, based in Blacksburg, Virginia. At Luna, he headed a team that developed the Optical Backscatter Reflectometer (OBR) with distributed sensing. The OBR is a fiber optic diagnostic tool that locates and troubleshoots splices, breaks, and connectors in fiber assemblies. In addition, it transforms standard telecom-grade fiber into a distributed strain and temperature sensor.

In 2002, Luna Innovations Incorporated entered into a licensing agreement with NASA for patent rights to products developed from Froggatt’s earlier work on the UDVSS. Since that initial licensing, Luna has released the Optical Vector Analyzer (OVA), Distributed Sensing System (DSS), and the OBR platforms.

Product Outcome
Luna now has several lines of sensing and instrumentation products that are sold under the branded name of Luna Technologies. The Luna Technologies brand offers advances in optical test products helping the communications industry to increase productivity and improve component characterization while dramatically reducing the development process and production costs. Fiber optic sensing instruments includes the OVA group, a set of instruments for linear characterization of single-mode optical components, and two different techniques for distributed sensing: the DSS, which uses Fiber Bragg Gratings (FBG), and the OBR, which uses standard telecom-grade optical fiber.

First profiled in Spinoff 2002, the OVA is the first instrument on the market that is capable of full and complete all-parameter linear characterization of single-mode optical components. The OVA further evolved into a fast, accurate, and economical suite of tools for loss, dispersion, and polarization measurement of modern optical networking equipment, including FBG, arrayed waveguide gratings, free-space filters, tunable devices, amplifiers, couplers, and specialty fiber.

The DSS is a fiber optic sensing tool for taking distributed measurements of temperature and strain. The DSS uses swept-wavelength interferometry to simultaneously interrogate thousands of sensors integrated in a single fiber. These sensors consist of discrete FBG point sensors which can each reflect the same nominal wavelength. As such, the sensors can be fabricated on the draw tower, eliminating the need for individual grating fabrication. DSS applications include structural monitoring for naval, aerospace, and civil structures; temperature profile monitoring in extreme environments; pipeline shift and leak detection; and electrical power line sag and temperature monitoring.

The OBR offers unprecedented diagnostic capabilities and is a true high-resolution optical time domain reflectometer designed specifically for qualifying fiber components, modules, and cable assemblies for telecommunications, avionics/military-aerospace, and fiber-sensing applications. Through distributed sensing, the OBR can transform standard telecom-grade fiber into a high-spatial-resolution strain and temperature sensor. Using swept wavelength interferometry (SWI) to measure the Rayleigh backscatter as a function of length in optical fiber with high-spatial resolution, the OBR measures shifts and scales them to give a distributed temperature or strain measurement. The SWI approach enables robust and practical distributed temperature and strain measurements in standard fiber with millimeter-scale spatial resolution over hundreds of meters of fiber with strain and temperature resolution as fine as 1 μstrain and 0.1 °C.

As with the other fiber optic monitoring tools, OBR provides isolation of faults and problems well before final testing, saving hours in rework and expenses in yield loss.
These abilities netted the OBR some prestigious awards:

  • 2005 Lightwave “Attendees’ Choice Award” in the Test Equipment category for the second consecutive year.
  • 2005 Frost & Sullivan “Optical Product of the Year Award,” as the industry’s most sensitive frequency domain reflectometer.
  • 2007 “R&D 100” award from the editors of R&D Magazine as one of the 100 most technologically significant new products introduced into the marketplace in the last year. Past “R&D 100” awards acknowledgements have included the automated teller machine (ATM), the fax machine, the NicoDerm antismoking patch, and high-definition television (HDTV).

“The ‘R&D 100’ award provides a mark of excellence known to industry, government, and academia as proof that a product is one of the most innovative of the year across a broad range of technologies,” said Brian Soller, president of the Products Division at Luna. “This is the first year Luna has submitted an award nomination to the R&D 100, and we are honored to have our test and measurement instrument selected as part of this truly elite group.”

Released in March 2007, the OBR 4400 is an upgraded version of the OBR instrument, with enhanced capabilities in a more compact design. Range has been increased to 2 kilometers, still with millimeters of resolution, and users can monitor the effects from component-level heating in optical amplifiers to strain and load redistribution in aircraft harnesses. Other applications include temperature monitoring inside telecommunications cabinets and enclosures, and a feature that allows users to identify the location in fiber assemblies simply by touching the fiber. With a small, easily transportable platform, the OBR 4400 provides the user with precision reflectometry and unprecedented optical-module inspection and diagnostic capabilities. Luna Technologies also recently introduced a tunable laser, a precision reflectometer, and an optical switch to round out their product offering.

Optical Vector Analyzer™, Optical Backscatter Reflectometer™, and Distributed Sensing System™ are trademarks of Luna Technologies.
NicoDerm® is a registered trademark of GlaxoSmithKline.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Working on NASA missions allows engineers and scientists to hone their skills. Creating devices for the high-stress rigors of space travel pushes designers to their limits, and the results often far exceed the original concepts. The technologies developed for the extreme environment of space are often applicable here on Earth.

Some of these NASA technologies, for example, have been applied to the breathing apparatuses worn by firefighters, the fire-resistant suits worn by racecar crews, and, most recently, the deep-sea gear worn by U.S. Navy divers.

Paragon Space Development Corporation, founded in 1993, is located in Tucson, Arizona. This firm is a woman-owned small business, specializing in aerospace engineering and technology development, and is a major supplier of environmental control and life support system and subsystem designs for the aerospace industry. Paragon has proven itself expert in thermal control for spacecraft in orbit and during reentry, as well as for hypervelocity aircraft.

In recent years, Paragon has worked on several different projects that benefit NASA and the space community. Through a NASA-funded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract, Paragon utilized its unique thermal analysis and structural design capabilities to develop a new, reduced-weight radiator system for use on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, other next-generation spacecraft, and commercial vehicles.

Paragon credits the Arizona Department of Commerce and the Governor’s FAST grant award (Federal and State Technology Partnership program) for the seed funds that led to the NASA SBIR award. The FAST grant program is funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and is focused on capturing Federal grants for competitive small businesses in each state, creating new jobs and new markets that lead to a better and stronger economy by keeping high-technology jobs in America. Paragon used its $5,000 FAST grant award to write its initial proposal to NASA, a partnership that led to continued research grants and development opportunities.

altOther developments resulting from NASA research include Paragon’s Environmental Control and Life Support Human-rating Facility, which the company designed to test emerging life support system designs for suborbital and orbital spacecraft, and the solid oxide electrolysis (SOE) technology, which is under continued development as a Phase II NASA SBIR. The SOE technology directly breaks down the carbon dioxide given off by the crew of a space vehicle and produces oxygen. This is the only known technology with the potential to supply all the crew’s oxygen needs directly from the crew’s metabolic byproducts, significantly saving spacecraft logistical mass. Another NASA project resulted in the development of the metabolic heat temperature swing absorption, which incorporates the technology innovation of using the metabolic heat generated by a space-suited astronaut to absorb and purge carbon dioxide from the breathing loop.

“[Our] partnership with NASA is growing rapidly and has many facets, from spinoffs that protect and enable the war fighter in extreme environments, to technologies that will be used on the Orion spacecraft, and support astronauts on the Moon and Mars,” explained Taber MacCallum, CEO and chairman of the board for Paragon. “NASA is the premier technology organization, and partnering with NASA is a key part of Paragon’s business plan. In our experience, what you put into the partnership determines what you get out of it. Industry’s partnership with NASA is a central component in maintaining America’s technical preeminence and high- technology jobs.”

Similarly, NASA is likely to rely on such commercial space services during the interval between the retirement of the space shuttle and the initial flight of Orion and its Ares launch vehicle.

Product Outcome
altNavy divers are called on to work in extreme and dangerous conditions. The high pressure of deep diving, toxic chemical spills, hot waters of the Persian Gulf, and chemical warfare agents make for some of the most hazardous working environments on Earth. As such, the Navy requested a diving system that will not fail when exposed to chemicals and would create an impermeable protective shell around the diver. Paragon’s extensive experience providing life support in extreme environments assisted in the development of a line of such products to protect Navy divers against hazardous materials; in particular, the successful design of a diving suit that now has the potential for use in commercial diving.

In designing the suit, Paragon applied its understanding of air flow in a space suit helmet, use of an umbilical to support an astronaut during a spacewalk, cooling undergarment systems to remove excess body heat, computer codes for thermal and airflow analysis, and materials that have been developed for the aerospace industry that are resistant to extreme chemical and temperature environments.

According to MacCallum, the Paragon suit provides “space suit-like” isolation, delivering safe breathing air to the diver. The surface-supplied system collects exhaled air and returns it to the surface to eliminate ingress pathways of hazardous agents through the regulator. The materials, including all soft goods, are impermeable. The development unit has completed unmanned testing, and the human-rated prototype has completed manned testing, having been evaluated by Navy divers at the Navy Experimental Diving Unit facility in Pensacola, Florida.

“The contaminated water diving technology that Paragon developed for the Navy came about as a result of our partnership with NASA. We are able to protect the war fighter and enable missions in extreme pressure, temperature, and chemical environments because NASA paved the way with space suit technologies and the operational know-how that allows astronauts to work in the extreme environment of space.”

More recently, Paragon provided the Navy with a prototype of its Regulated Surface Exhaust Diving System. The Navy has since requested five units for field testing prior to outfitting all Navy dive suits with the Paragon product. Other products under development at Paragon include individual or collective protection systems designed for use in land vehicles and structures.

MacCallum says, “Bringing space technology back to Earth, we provide space suit-like protection for divers working in hazardous environments ranging from chemical and biological warfare agents, to the toxic environment of a shipwreck or chemical spill. Conversely, our technology is now being considered as a way to protect municipal water supplies from being contaminated by divers servicing potable water tanks.”

Although one of NASA’s goals is to send people to the far reaches of our universe, it is still well known that people need Earth. We understand that humankind’s existence relies on its complex relationship with this planet’s environment—in particular, the regenerative qualities of Earth’s ecosystems.

The Microgravity Combustion Science group at NASA’s Glenn Research Center studies how fire and combustible liquids and gasses behave in low-gravity conditions. This group, currently working as part of the Life Support and Habitation Branch under the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, conducts this research with a careful eye toward fire prevention, detection, and suppression, in order to establish the highest possible safety margins for space-bound materials.

As fleets of aircraft age, corrosion of metal parts becomes a very real economic and safety concern. Corrosive agents like moisture, salt, and industrial fluids—and even internal problems, like leaks and condensation—wear away and, especially over time and repeated exposure, begin to corrode aircraft.

LUNAplast™ EXIT signs illuminate without the need for electricity, maintenance, or a power connection.
Emergency exit signs can be lifesavers, but only if they remain visible when people need them. All too often, power losses or poor visibility can render the signs ineffective. Luna Technologies International, Inc., of Kent, Washington, is shining new light on this safety issue. The company’s LUNAplast™ product line illuminates without the need for electricity, maintenance, or a power connection. LUNAplast, which benefited from tests conducted at Johnson Space Center, is so successful that NASA engineers selected it for the emergency exit pathway indicators on the International Space Station (ISS).

A unique sensor developed by ProVision Technologies, a NASA Commercial Space Center housed by the Institute for Technology Development, produces hyperspectral images with cutting-edge applications in food safety, skin health, forensics, and anti-terrorism activities. While hyperspectral imaging technology continues to make advances with ProVision Technologies, it has also been transferred to the commercial sector through a spinoff company, Photon Industries, Inc.

An unexpected tragedy took place on April 28, 1988, when the roof of an Aloha Airlines 737 aircraft ripped open at 24,000 feet, killing a flight attendant and injuring eight people. The in-flight structural failure of Aloha Flight 243's 19-year-old aircraft prompted NASA Langley Research Center to join with colleagues at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force to initiate the Nation's first Aging Aircraft Research program.

Cybernet Systems Corporation, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, originally developed its gesture recognition technology for the U.S. Department of Defense. A 1997 Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with NASA's Johnson Space Center also contributed to the development of the company's gesture recognition and tracking system, which observes human hand motions and interprets gestures in order to control devices.

Hailstorm damage to the Space Shuttle's External Tank inspired a NASA innovation with extensive photography applications. In order to measure the defects caused by the storm, Kennedy Space Center used telephoto lenses to zoom in on the tank and view the damage clearly. However, since there was no reference object in the image, the engineers could not determine the scale of the damage.


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