NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA, has won NASA’s 2010 Government Invention of the Year Award and the Commercial Invention of the Year Award. The Government Invention of the Year was the Future ATM (Air Traffic Management) Concepts Evaluation Tool (FACET), a software tool that creates simulations for managing air traffic scenarios. The center won the Commercial award for developing a powder vibration system used in portable X-ray diffraction (XRD) instruments.

Shown is a sample holder for one of inXitu's portable powder X-ray Diffraction (pXRD) systems. A coarse crystalline powder to be analyzed is placed in one of the sample cells (round windows at the base of the sample holder). The sample holder is essentially a tuning fork driven at resonant frequency by a piezodriver. As the cell is shaken, the crystals in the powder exhibit random movements in the X-ray beam of the instrument, mimicking a myriad of tiny crystallites in random orientation.

Nominations are evaluated by NASA’s Inventions and Contributions Board. The board determines which qualify for each category, ranks the nominees, and makes recommendations to the NASA Office of the General Counsel for review and approval.

Powder Vibration Technology

Ames research scientist David Blake and former NASA post-doctoral fellow Philippe Sarrazin developed the powder vibration technology, which was licensed to inXitu of Campbell, CA. “This invention changes the way people work in the field because it allows the scientist to take the instrument to the location of the analytical problem, rather than the opposite,” Blake said. “Because the technology is portable, it has diverse applications in the field, including for geology, detection of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, or analyzing art objects and antiquities.”

Virtually all solid materials are crystalline. Powder X-ray Diffraction (pXRD, or simply XRD) is the technique of choice for unequivocal identification of these materials. However, in order to characterize crystalline materials by pXRD, one needs to provide a myriad of tiny crystallites in random orientations to the X-ray beam. This is commonly achieved by grinding the material to a grain size

Using the powder vibration technology, coarsely ground or even as-received powders

The powder vibration system enabled the development of a miniaturized soil and rock analysis instrument that Ames has provided and has been accepted for flight on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), NASA’s next mission to Mars. MSL is scheduled to launch in November.

With this invention, spaceflight instruments such as CheMin (the mineralogical instrument that is a principal payload instrument on MSL) become possible. On Earth, pXRDs such as Terra (the inXitu instrument for which the vibrated sample cell invention is critical) can be checked as personal luggage on passenger flights, and used as a tool anywhere in the world by trained laypersons.

Many new commercial applications in petroleum, mining, and the cement industry are being tested or are already in place using Terra. The US FDA and other agencies are using Terra for the detection of counterfeit pharmaceuticals at field stations. Outside of NASA, commercial versions of the instrument are being used in government-sponsored applications in homeland security and forensic materials analysis for the military in war zones.

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FACET Software

Models of contrails, fuel flow, and emission have been integrated with FACET. The enhanced FACET software provides a flexible simulation and optimization architecture to study the trade-offs involved in reducing emissions.

FACET is a flexible software-based simulation environment for exploration, development, and evaluation of advanced Air Traffic Management (ATM) concepts. Examples of concepts studied using FACET are aircraft self-separation for Free Flight, modeling and prediction of air traffic controller workload, a decision support tool for direct routing, integration of space launch vehicle operations into the US National Airspace System (NAS), and advanced traffic flow management techniques using rerouting, metering, and ground delay.

FACET models system-wide airspace operations over the contiguous United States. Airspace models are available from databases; weather models are also available. FACET models aircraft trajectories using spherical-earth equations; aircraft can be flown along either flight plan routes or direct (great circle) routes as they climb, cruise, and descend according to their individual aircraft-type performance models.

“As the world’s population grows and air travel demand increases, our airspace will become more crowded,” said Banavar Sridhar, NASA senior scientist for Air Transportation Systems. “FACET helps air traffic management researchers find ways to increase airspace capacity and establish more efficient routes with the least impact on the environment, thereby saving fuel and minimizing emissions.”

A significant enhancement to FACET is the development of aircraft fuel-flow models, emission models, contrail models, and the optimization of single-aircraft trajectories to mitigate environmental impact. This provides the capability to conduct system-level trade-off studies to support the “green aviation” effort. Greenhouse gases, nitrous oxides, and contrails resulting from aircraft operations affect the environment in different and uncertain ways. Technological advances in air traffic management enabled by FACET can be applied to other large-scale networks such as the Internet (data communications), ground transportation systems, and power distribution grids.

FACET continues to support the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s (ARMD) Airspace System Program. It was recently integrated with NASA’s implementation of the Traffic Management Advisor (TMA), which

schedules aircraft for airport arrival. Assuming an airline operating cost of approximately $100 per minute, reducing the total delay even by a small percentage will result in significant savings to the airlines and air travelers.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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