Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard is considered the father of modern rocket propulsion. A physicist, Goddard also had a unique genius for invention. It is in his honor that NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, was established on May 1, 1959 as NASA's first space flight complex.

NASA Goddard works to increase scientific understanding and answer humanity's most pressing questions about our world, the solar system, and beyond. The center identifies requirements and innovations; designs, builds, and launches spacecraft; and manages and supports space missions.

Goddard manages communications between Mission Control and orbiting astronauts aboard the International Space Station, and has sent instruments to every planet in the solar system. As a spaceflight center, Goddard utilizes its core technical and programmatic expertise and facility capabilities to execute a broad range of flight missions and field campaigns.

More than 50 Goddard spacecraft explore Earth and the solar system, collecting observations to be parsed and studied by scientists around the world. Missions support multiple scientific disciplines including Earth science, solar science and the Sun-Earth environment, planetary studies, and astrophysics. The center is the operational home of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope.

Goddard builds instruments for missions, ranging from subsystems — such as detectors and optical elements — to full instruments and complex instrument suites. The center also designs and implements custom, large-scale data systems and supercomputing applications for high-performance computing and archiving of a wide range of science data. Goddard services enable extended mission operations, reconfiguration, and recovery including in-orbit spacecraft refueling and repair and assembling large structures in orbit and modular designs.

NASA's spaceborne assets are increasingly in demand to help agencies and first responders jump into action after natural disasters. In some cases, these assets are needed not only in the immediate aftermath but also in the subsequent months and years of recovery. After Hurricane Maria's direct hit on Puerto Rico in 2017, Goddard scientists provided federal agencies on the ground with a new, high-definition view showing the lights visible on the island at night. Using ground-based and satellite data, including those from Landsat satellites, the scientists created a map of Puerto Rico's power outages. The map was continually updated months after the storm, allowing for real-time monitoring of recovery efforts as well as analyses of vulnerabilities, helping guide the design of a more resilient electricity grid.

In some cases, NASA also provides a view of where disaster may strike. For the first time, scientists can look at landslide threats anywhere around the world in near-real time, thanks to data from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission and a new model developed by Goddard scientists. The model uses GPM data to identify areas with heavy, persistent, and recent precipitation. Where precipitation is unusually high, the model determines if the area is prone to landslides using a susceptibility map.

NASA data and tools are also being used to better respond to disease and public health. In 2018, measurements from NASA's Earth-observing research satellites were used to help combat a potential outbreak of life-threatening cholera. Humanitarian teams in Yemen targeted areas identified by a NASA project that precisely forecasts high-risk regions based on environmental conditions observed from space. Humanitarian workers used this information to implement life-saving strategies to reduce the risk of cholera.

The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on the Curiosity rover analyzes samples of material collected by the rover's arm. (NASA)

Goddard researchers, working with their university counterparts, advance the use of satellites to monitor air quality worldwide. Combining data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on the Aura satellite with Goddard's GEOS-5 atmospheric computer model, scientists are releasing an experimental global air quality forecast that can predict harmful levels of particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrous dioxide, and other pollutants.

Apollo-era astronauts attracted a lot of Moon dust as they worked on the lunar surface. Goddard technologists are experimenting with different techniques to prevent the attraction when NASA returns to the Moon. (NASA)

Since 1961, Goddard's communications networks have served as the backbone for NASA's human exploration missions, beginning with the use of ground-based antennas. In 1983, Goddard launched the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) that provided continuous communications through space-based relays and forever changed the landscape of space communications. Today, Goddard is implementing optical communications in space, which will provide better data rates as NASA returns to the Moon and journeys beyond.


Coating Technology – An advanced coating being tested aboard the International Space Station for use on satellite components could also help NASA solve how to keep the Moon's irregularly shaped dust grains from adhering to virtually everything they touch, including astronauts’ spacesuits. Goddard technologists originally created the coating to help “bleed off” the buildup of electrical charges that can destroy spacecraft electronics. Atomic layer deposition was used to apply super-thin films of indium tin oxide onto dry pigments of paint. Once mixed, the paint could then be coated on radiators and other spacecraft components to help mitigate the buildup of electrical charges. Astronauts carry their own charge and, as the Apollo missions proved, will attract dust as they rove about the Moon. Because NASA has eyed the Moon's southern pole for possible human habitation, it's especially important that NASA develop efficient ways to dissipate these charges.

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) – The SAM instrument suite takes up more than half the science payload onboard the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. SAM is made up of three different instruments — a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and tunable laser spectrometer — that search for and measure organic chemicals and light elements associated with life such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. As samples of drilled rock or scooped soil are heated within SAM, components within them vaporize and are piped to the different instruments.

Algorithms to Identify Patterns in Data – Instead of programming a computer to carry out every task it needs to do, machine learning can equip ground- or space-based computer processors with algorithms that, like humans, learn from data, finding and recognizing patterns and trends but faster, more accurately, and without bias. Scientists could use machine learning to analyze the petabytes of data NASA has already collected over the years, extracting new patterns and new correlations and eventually leading to new science discoveries. Goddard engineers and scientists are researching applications including how machine learning could help make real-time crop forecasts, locate wildfires and floods, identify instrument anomalies, and find suitable landing sites for a robotic craft.

Robotic Tool Stowage – Goddard developed RiTS, a robotic tool storage system for critical robot tools that attaches to the outside of the International Space Station. The “robot hotel” provides heat and physical protection from radiation and micrometeroids — tiny, highspeed objects hurtling through space. Its thermal system maintains ideal temperatures for instruments, helping them stay functional.

Survival and rescue systems engineers conduct pool testing of ANGEL search and rescue beacons. (NASA)

LiDAR Signal Processing – Scanning LiDARs generate a huge amount of raw digital data that must be processed as quickly as possible in order to generate 3D imagery in real time. In order to accomplish this task for the next-generation 3D scanning LiDAR known as the Goddard Reconfigurable Solid-state Scanning LiDAR (GRISSLi), Goddard developed a FPGA module capable of processing an arbitrary number of waveforms rapidly and in parallel. This innovation allows a system to process an almost limitless number of received laser pulses for LiDAR applications in real time and is limited only by available FPGA resources.

Fabrication for Lab-on-a-Chip Devices – Designed to collect and separate amino acids to find the building blocks of life on other planets, Goddard's fabrication technology could be essential to many other lab-on-a-chip or microfluidic applications. A microchannel chip was created from a silicon bottom wafer and Pyrex top wafer anodically bonded. Specialized microbeads with specific structure and surface chemistry are placed along the channels. Different species of analyte molecules will interact more strongly with the column chemistry and will therefore take longer to traverse the column, i.e., have a longer retention time. In this way, the channels separate molecular species based on their chemistry.

The RiTS robotic tool storage system flight unit that will be installed on the exterior of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Flow and Temperature Sensor – Goddard developed a sensor for micro-analytical systems that measures in real time the flow rate and temperature of the liquid being sampled. The system sensors measure flow rates in the nanoliter-per-minute range and at temperatures from >150 ϒC down to -80 ϒC. The sensor is small enough to be used in lab-on-a-chip applications.

Gear Bearings – This technology combines gear and bearing functions into a single unit that significantly improves gear drives across the board for electrical, internal combustion, and turbine motors. The gear bearing design incorporates rifletrue anti-backlash, improved thrust bearing performance, and phase-tuning techniques for superior low speed reduction. Because it combines gear and bearing functions, it reduces weight, number of parts, size, and cost, while also increasing load capacity and performance.

Printable Chemical Nanosensor – A printable nanosensor and leads were developed using 3D printing techniques on a silicon daughter board that can be connected to a self-contained pre-amp PCB. The sensor contains a graphene sensor array and a PCB with pre-amplifier circuit connected to the daughter board with mechanical clips and also wire-bonded together. The sensor increases the sensitivity of gas sensors, enabling detection of ppb level concentration (and possibly single molecules).

Lotus Coating – Goddard's formulation is a Lotus leaf-like nano-textured dust mitigation coating. Originally developed to address a large-scale problem of dust accumulation and contamination in dusty space environments — such as the Moon, Mars, comets, asteroids, and other planetary bodies — the coating can be used for other space applications and aeronautical applications as well as Earth-based ground applications. The Lotus Coating is a lightweight passive coating that also has super-hydrophobic properties and can prevent a variety of particles, liquids, or ice from sticking to the coated surface.

Microgap cooling technology allows NASA to effectively cool tightly packed instrument electronics and other spaceflight gear. (NASA/Franklin Robinson)

Search and Rescue Beacon – Goddard has developed emergency beacons as well as the ground and flight systems that support them for a wide variety of applications. Second-generation emergency beacons offer users improved accuracy and quicker response times. Artemis astronauts returning from the Moon will be the first users of these beacons, which will be commercially available to the general public in the coming years. In collaboration with NASA Johnson, specialized Advanced Next-Generation Emergency Locator (ANGEL) beacons were developed using the second-generation technology for astronaut life vests. A prototype device is being tested on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can hone in on the beacons. In addition to proving the direction-finding technology, these tests will demonstrate how UAVs may be used in search and rescue operations.

Microgap Cooling of Electronics – Goddard's microgap cooling technology allows NASA to effectively cool tightly packed instrument electronics and other spaceflight gear. The technology is unaffected by weightlessness and could be used on a future spaceflight mission. It not only removes large amounts of heat but also carries out the job in low- and high-gravity environments with nearly identical results.

Heat generated by tightly packed electronics is removed by flowing a coolant through embedded, rectangular-shaped microchannels within or between heat-generating devices. As the coolant flows through these tiny gaps, it boils on the heated surfaces, producing vapor. This two-phase process offers a higher rate of heat transfer, which keeps high-power devices cool and less likely to fail due to overheating.

Technology Transfer

The Goddard Strategic Partnerships Office forges innovative partnerships that link the center's internal inventors with corporations, startups, universities, and other government agencies. For more information, contact the office at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 301-286-5810.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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