Established in December 1939 as part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Ames Aeronautical Laboratory was named for Joseph Sweetman Ames, founding chairman of the NACA and the architect of aeronautical research in the United States. In 1958, the lab was absorbed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

When Ames became part of NASA, it continued fundamental research in new sciences and component technologies and became NASA’s lead center in basic life sciences research including radiation biology, adaptability to microgravity, and exobiology.

Some Ames aerodynamicists explored the complex airflows around rotorcraft and devised the first tiltrotor aircraft, while others modeled airflows using new supercomputers and created the field of computational fluid dynamics. To link these computers together, Ames engineers pioneered inter-networking, using tools from the Silicon Valley firms growing around it. Ames engineers and planetary scientists managed a series of airborne science aircraft, planetary atmosphere probes, and robotic explorers like the Pioneers and Lunar Prospector.

Into the 1990s, Ames drew university and corporate researchers into space exploration by developing the NASA Research Park at Moffett Field. And Ames leaders devised new organizational forms to create the fields of astrobiology, robotics, microelectronic mechanical systems, and nanotechnology.

The Crew-Vehicle Systems Research Facility (CVRF) at Ames was designed for the study of human factors in aviation such as fatigue. The facility includes a Boeing 747 full-motion, full-mission-capable flight simulator and a simulated air traffic control environment.

Today, Ames Research Center (located in Mountain View, CA) is NASA’s leading center in supercomputing and information technology, astrobiology and the space life sciences, and nanotechnology and materials science. In addition, Ames hosts the world’s greatest collection of wind tunnels and flight simulation facilities — a legacy of its origins in the NACA.

Core Areas of Expertise

Entry Systems: Every NASA-launched spacecraft that has entered another planet’s atmosphere or landed on another planet — as well as every NASA-launched vehicle that has returned from space to land on Earth — has been directly or indirectly enabled by the entry systems work at Ames.

Advanced Computing & IT Systems: Ames is a key participant in the advancement and use of supercomputing in support of its missions. The center became prominent in supercomputing with its operation of the ILLIAC IV — the most powerful supercomputer in the world at the time — starting in the early 1970s. Ames also hosts the agency’s NASA Advanced Super-computing (NAS) facility.

Aerosciences: Researchers have tested generations of commercial and military aircraft and NASA space vehicles at Ames’ Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel (UPWT) facility, which has been instrumental in the development of virtually every domestic commercial transport and military fixed-wing airframe since the 1960s. Researchers used the UPWT extensively for airframe testing and aerodynamic studies of the Orion space capsule.

Air Traffic Management: Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is a comprehensive transformation of the NAS that includes all components (airspace, facilities, equipment, services, workforce, procedures, etc.) that enable the nation’s air transportation system. Ames’ airspace modeling and simulation tools have been used to model the flow of air traffic flow across the U.S. and to evaluate new concepts in airspace design, traffic flow management, and optimization.

The Hyperwall visualization system at Ames — featuring 128 LCD screens backed with powerful hardware — enables NASA researchers to view and explore data in unprecedented detail. Here, the Hyperwall II shows fires worldwide. (NASA/Dominic Hart)

Astrobiology & Life Sciences: Flying hundreds of science payloads aboard the space shuttle, International Space Station (ISS), Russian probes, and small satellites developed at Ames, scientists have conducted biological research and technology development necessary to enable NASA’s long-term human exploration mission. Ames’ ISS Utilization Office coordinates and leads NASA Ames’ science, exploration, and technology activities aboard the ISS.

Cost-Effective Space Missions: Ames enables high-value science to low Earth orbit and the Moon. The Mission Design Center (MDC) facility specializes in conceptual mission design, focusing on low-cost, small spacecraft missions.

Intelligent/Adaptive Systems: Since 1990, the Ames Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) has been exploring extreme environments, remote locations, and uncharted worlds. IRG operates the K10 and K-REX series of planetary rovers and conducts robotic field tests in planetary analog sites including the Mojave Desert and the Canadian Arctic.

Space and Earth Science: Nearly 1,000 extrasolar planets (exoplanets) have been confirmed since the first was discovered in 1995. Ames plays a leading role in NASA airborne sciences, conducting studies of the celestial sky and our own planet from airplanes. Ames is leading the science operations for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne infrared observatory that flies a 2.5-meter-diameter telescope aboard a modified Boeing 747 airplane.

This image captures a moment from a simulation of the Pad Abort 1 flight test of the Orion Launch Abort System, performed on the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) Electra supercomputer at Ames. The simulation used computational fluid dynamics software to predict the vibrational forces exerted on the surface of the vehicle.

Technologies

Temper Foam. The most recognized and widely used NASA spinoff, temper foam’s origins date back to 1966 when it was developed at Ames to absorb shock and, thus, offer improved protection and comfort in NASA’s airplane seats. It padded the helmets of the Dallas Cowboys throughout the 1970s and 1980s, protected bedridden patients from bedsores, comforted the feet of thousands wearing shoes with the cushioning material in their insoles, and helped millions sleep more comfortably. Initially referred to as “slow springback foam,” the material flowed to match the contour of the body pressing against it and returned to its original shape once the pressure was removed.

Cool Suit. Micro Climate technology used to create a liquid-cooled garment had its origin in a 1968 program at Ames that produced a spacesuit undergarment for cooling astronauts on the surface of the Moon or during forays outside their spacecraft. The system circulated a fluid, cooled by a heat exchanger and delivered by a battery-powered minipump, through a network of tubes in the garment. Since then, the technology has been used to keep racecar drivers, military pilots, firefighters, and patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and other diseases cool.

Anti-Icing Fluid. Ames engineers invented an environmentally friendly anti-icing fluid to keep hazardous ice from building up on airplane wings. The fluid, when applied to a dry surface, prevents the ice from even forming a surface bond, which saves deicing time and money while also preventing excessive use of chemical solvents.

Cloud Computing. In 2008, a NASA effort to standardize its websites inspired a breakthrough in cloud computing technology. The innovation has spurred the growth of an entire industry in open source cloud services that generates hundreds of millions of dollars. Originally known as NASA.net, the project aimed to provide a standard set of tools and methods for Web developers. Even though the project was relatively narrow in its focus, the developers realized they needed bigger, more foundational tools to accomplish the job. They created an “infrastructure service” or what came to be known as a cloud computing service.

PICA Heat Shield. The Phenolic-Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield, a lightweight material designed to withstand high temperatures, was used for the Stardust’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX later worked with the inventors at Ames to outfit PICA on its Dragon capsule, which is now delivering cargo to and from the International Space Station through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contracts program.

The parachute for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission was qualification-tested inside the world's largest wind tunnel at Ames. The parachute opens to a diameter of nearly 51 feet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

UAS Traffic Management. Ames created a research platform to help manage large numbers of unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones) flying at low altitude along with other airspace users. Known as UAS Traffic Management (UTM), the system can integrate drones safely and efficiently into air traffic that is already flying in low-altitude airspace. That way, drones won’t interfere with helicopters, airplanes, nearby airports, or even safety drones being flown by first responders helping to save lives.

ShuttleSCAN. Originally developed for real-time inspection of damage to the thermal protection tiles of the Space Shuttle orbiter, the ShuttleSCAN 3D surface scanning and profiling system can be used for a wide range of commercial applications, from product quality control to autonomous navigation. Powered by the onboard Surface Profiling and Characterization Engine (SPACE) processor, ShuttleSCAN provides realtime analysis of surfaces ranging from the small (such as circuit boards) to the large (such as panels or roads).

Flight Awareness Collaboration Tool (FACT). Winter weather such as snow, freezing precipitation, and ice can impact airport surface operations, resulting in significant disruptions in arrival and departure rates. To address these issues, Ames developed the FACT software application that is designed to reduce the number of unnecessary flight cancellations by improving situation awareness of an impending winter weather event and its effects on airports. It gathers the information necessary for winter weather management into one location and has predictive tools. Being Web-based, it can be available to multiple users.

NASA’s FutureFlight Central (FFC) facility offers a 360-degree, fully immersive, virtual airport environment in which planners, managers, controllers, pilots, and airlines can work together in real time to optimize expansion plans and operating procedures, and evaluate new technologies under realistic conditions.

Air Traffic Control Tools. Ames-developed software tools deployed in the 1990s — including CTAS and TMA — are the backbone of many air traffic control systems. They generate information for air traffic controllers and forecast arriving air traffic to help controllers plan for safe arrivals during peak periods at airports. Today, NASA continues to work closely with the FAA to develop tools that help controllers guide aircraft through arrivals that use less fuel and generate less noise over communities around airports, and tools that could help aircraft leave the gate at a time that guarantees their arrival into their slot in the sky and reducing delays.

E-Tongue. This nano chemical sensor technology is comprised of a silicon-based interdigitated electrode (IDE) array with nanostructured materials that can detect biomolecules and chemical compounds in a liquid sample. The technology utilizes an array of low-specificity sensors that yield electrical signals that act as signatures specific to the molecules present. The technology provides a sensing platform for liquid samples to detect the presence of target components. This invention takes relatively little time for detection, is quantitatively specific for identifying the presence of one or more target components of a liquid, and uses a minimum number of chemical or physical tests that can be performed simultaneously or sequentially.

Strategic Partnerships

Researchers at Ames submit hundreds of invention disclosures every year, creating a notable portfolio of intellectual property that is available to U.S. industry, academia, and other government agencies for public benefit. The Strategic Partnership Office provides collaborators access to Ames’ unique facilities and expertise and facilitates commercialization of NASA technology through the private sector.

Learn about Ames technologies available for partnerships and licensing opportunities by contacting Kimberly Hines, Chief of the Technology Transfer Office, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 650-604-5582, or visit here .


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

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