NASA Spinoff

The Applied Sciences Directorate, part of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, makes use of the Agency's remote-sensing capabilities to acquire detailed information about our home planet. It uses this information for a variety of purposes, ranging from increasing agricultural efficiency to protecting homeland security. Sensors fly over areas of interest to detect and record information that sometimes is not even visible from the ground with the human eye. Scientists analyze these data for a variety of purposes and make maps of the areas. These maps are often used to answer questions about the environment, weather, natural resources, community growth, and natural disasters.

Each day, we read about mounting global concerns regarding the ability to sustain supplies of clean water and to reduce air contamination. With water and air serving as life's most vital elements, it is important to know when these environmental necessities may be contaminated, in order to eliminate exposure immediately.

The Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) Alliance was created in 1994 and operated for 9 years as a NASA-sponsored coalition of 28 members from small companies, government, universities, and nonprofit organizations. ERAST's goal was to foster development of remotely piloted aircraft technology for scientific, humanitarian, and commercial purposes. Some of the aircraft in the ERAST Alliance were intended to fly unmanned at high altitudes for days at a time, and flying for such durations required alternative sources of power that did not add weight. The most successful solution for this type of sustained flight is the lightest solar energy. Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. They are made of semi-conducting materials similar to those used in computer chips. When sunlight is absorbed, electrons are knocked loose from their atoms, allowing electricity to flow.

Dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs) are chemical compounds that can contaminate soil and groundwater to the point of irreparability. These substances are only slightly soluble in water, and are much denser than water. Because of their solubility, DNAPLs form separate liquid phases in groundwater, and because of their density, DNAPLs sink in aquifers instead of floating at the water table, making it extremely difficult to detect their presence. If left untreated in the ground, they can taint fresh water sources.

While the most common photographs of Earth taken from space show the planet covered in blue water, NASA has managed to produce detailed color images, using satellite imagery, that show the remarkable variation of colors that actually make up the oceanic surface. An ocean's color is determined by the interaction of surface waters with sunlight, and surface waters can contain any number of different particles and dissolved substances, which could then change the color.

In 1984, NASA initiated the Gravity Probe B (GP-B) program to test two unverified predictions of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity—hypotheses about the ways space, time, light, and gravity relate to each other. To test these predictions, the Space Agency and researchers at Stanford University developed an experiment that would check, with extreme precision, tiny changes in the spin direction of four gyroscopes contained in an Earth satellite orbiting at a 400-mile altitude directly over the Earth's poles.

A solar cell is a semiconductor device that converts photons, or light, into electricity. The most widely used solar cells today are made from wafers of mono- or poly-crystalline silicon.

In order to better understand our solar system and the ways it supports life, scientists and researchers at NASA study the planets. Of course, one of the planets on which NASA focuses most of its research is the Blue Planet, Earth, since this is the only one currently known to support life; and it is also, for all practical purposes, the most accessible. These scientists and researchers know that one of the determining factors in the planet’s ability to support life is the same factor that makes the Blue Planet blue: water. Therefore, NASA researchers have a focused interest in understanding Earth’s oceans and their ability to continue sustaining life.

Soil, water, and light. According to prevailing dogma, these are the three main ingredients for growing and maintaining healthy plants. But what if you take soil completely out of the equation and limit the presence of water significantly? Can you still nurture plants in such an environment?

The Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker exporting millions of gallons of oil, ran aground just after midnight on March 24, 1989 in Alaska, creating what is, to this day, the worst environmental disaster in American history. The affected area of coastal Alaska continues to feel the toxic results of that disaster that killed more than 250,000 seabirds, thousands of marine mammals, and countless numbers of other coastal marine organisms in just its first months. Oil is notoriously difficult to clean from water, and it is still emerging from subsurface reservoirs. Salmon caught in that region are, even now, 16 years later, showing signs of long-term contamination from the devastating oil spill.


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