Goddard Space Flight Center’s (GSFC) primary role is to develop science and technology to support unmanned missions to study the Earth, Sun, solar system, and universe. GSFC is responsible for several of NASA’s highest-profile accomplishments, including the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). GSFC has one of the world’s largest teams of engineers and scientists dedicated to advancing our knowledge of Earth and space. The Center is located in Greenbelt, MD, 15 miles from Washington DC and 30 miles from Baltimore, MD.
GSFC’s areas of research and technology are centered on four broad categories:
- Earth science: This includes the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), a collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA); and ICESat, a mission to monitor our planet’s ice mass and other environmental variables.
- Astrophysics: In addition to the HST and the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), developed to measure the diffuse infrared and microwave radiation from the early universe to the limits set by our astrophysical environment (for which GSFC scientist Dr. John C. Mather shared the 2006 Nobel Prize), current missions also include Swift, a mission to study gamma ray bursts (GRBs), and the Fermi Gammaray Space Telescope, a mission to study the the most extreme environments in the universe, where nature harnesses energies far beyond anything possible on Earth.
- Heliophysics: Missions include the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), designed to study the internal structure of the Sun, its extensive outer atmosphere, and the origin of the solar wind (the stream of highly ionized gas that blows continuously outward through the solar system); and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), two nearly identical observatories (one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind) that have traced the flow of energy and matter from the Sun to Earth. STEREO has revealed the 3D structure of coronal mass ejections, violent eruptions of matter from the Sun that can disrupt satellites and power grids.
- Planetary and Lunar Science: Among these are the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), set to launch in 2013, which will provide information about the Red Planet’s atmosphere, climate history, and potential habitability in greater detail than ever before; and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments that will search for compounds of the element carbon (including methane) that are associated with life and explore ways in which they are generated and destroyed in the Martian ecosphere, as part of the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.
GSFC is also very active in the design and development of advanced communications and navigation technologies that have application across diverse scientific and technical requirements. The Center has developed civilian weather satellite systems, and continues to partner with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in this capacity. In all, Goddard is currently involved in over 40 active missions, providing end-to-end technology design, development, and implementation capabilities, from science phenomena observation/measurement to science results, for the full mission lifecycle.
To support these missions, GSFC has developed a very broad spectrum of technologies, capabilities, and expertise. According to Christyl Johnson, Deputy Director for Science and Technology at GSFC, the Center’s main focus areas include detector development, communications/navigation, mirror design and fabrication, mass spectrometers, magnetometers, and remote sensing. GSFC Chief Technologist Peter Hughes adds that Goddard is a world leader in the development of lightweight composite materials, for applications such as the JWST in which these components need to maintain nanometer-scale tolerances across temperature extremes. Other GSFC areas of expertise cited by Mr. Hughes include lasers (for applications such as free-space communications), nanotechnologies and miniaturization, and X-ray detection, among others.
A major theme within Goddard is how to continue to expand its expertise and technology base (and leverage its existing capabilities) in the most efficient, innovative, and cost-effective ways. A critical component of this effort is through partnerships. “For the first time, the U.S. has a Chief Technology Officer,” explains Ms. Johnson, “whose primary role is to coordinate with all federal agencies and help the agency heads determine how to do more with less. To do this, agencies need to identify areas in which their technologies align. For GSFC, this involves targeting strategic partnerships. In the past, we’ve done a lot of one-on-one partnerships, working with another entity on a particular mission or project. We need to raise this to a higher level, to form partnerships that are strategic.”
Nona Cheeks, Chief of GSFC’s Innovative Partnerships Program, echoes the partnership theme. “Our office has three main partnership goals: to leverage Goddard’s R&D, to accelerate our R&D work, and to bring in new technologies. To help meet these goals, we look for opportunities to collaborate with others to develop complementary and adjacent technology.”
Such partnerships can result in highly beneficial technologies that are far removed from the original applications for which they were created. A recent example involves the hierarchical image segmentation (HSEG) algorithm, a GSFC technology initially developed to enhance and analyze images such as those taken of Earth from space by NASA’s LandSat and Terra missions. Via a medical imaging workshop hosted by the GSFC Innovative Partnerships Program Office, HSEG came to the attention of Bartron Medical Imaging, who licensed it as part of their MED-SEG product. The company later entered into a coorperative research and development agreement with GSFC to further explore advancements of the tool to help specialists interpret medical images and influence engineering advances for NASA uses. In July of 2010, MED-SEG received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Another example of a GSFC technology leveraged into a completely new application involves X-ray detection, originally developed to support astronomy. This technology is now being investigated as part of a novel positioning system, in which pulsars (which, as Mr. Hughes notes, are more stable over long periods of time than our best atomic clocks) are used as navigational beacons. This can provide highly accurate positioning in space, far beyond the reach of GPS. It could also conceivably be used for terrestrial applications, as a positioning system invulnerable to anti-satellite attack.
GSFC also offers potential partners a wide variety of laboratories and facilities. These integrated design centers include laboratories for instrumentation, architecture, optical design, flight dynamics, 3D visualization, mission services, detector development, cryogenic, laser, and many others. Collectively, these facilities offer the capability to rapidly assess and design a space mission via a very integrated approach. “They’re amazing at putting concepts together,” notes Ms. Johnson.