NASA Technology

What causes the Sun to change? And what are the impacts on our planet and our daily lives?

These are some of the top questions that the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is seeking answers to through a variety of missions to study the Sun. The most recent, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched in 2010, beams back 150 million bits of data per second—almost 50 times more science data than any other mission in NASA history. As a result, SDO’s instruments are giving solar scientists an unprecedented look at the Sun.

NASA Technology

Above the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Brazil, there is a dip in the Earth’s surrounding magnetic field called the South Atlantic Anomaly. Here, space radiation can reach into Earth’s upper atmosphere to interfere with the functioning of satellites, aircraft, and even the International Space Station. “The South Atlantic Anomaly is a hot spot of radiation that the space station goes through at a certain point in orbit,” Miria Finckenor, a physicist at Marshall Space Flight Center, describes, “If there’s going to be a problem with the electronics, 90 percent of that time, it is going to be in that spot.”

As the launch clock counts down, astronauts in the space shuttle prepare for the fastest ride of their lives. More powerful than any plane, train, or automobile, NASA space shuttles boast the world’s most sophisticated rocket engines: three 14-foot-long main engines that produce more than 375,000 pounds of thrust each. This thrust is approximately four times that of the largest commercial jet engine—and produces an extreme amount of vibration.

Knowing what will happen before it happens is no easy task. That is why new spacecraft and technology are constantly being tested and refined—including the J-2X engine, which may power the upper stage of future NASA rockets. Data from tests like these help to ensure that the next generation of space explorers will travel safely into orbit.

Much is made of the engineering that enables the complex operations of a rover examining the surface of Mars—and rightly so. But even the most advanced robotics are useless if, when the rover rolls out onto the Martian soil, a software glitch causes a communications breakdown and leaves the robot frozen. Whether it is a Mars rover, a deep space probe, or a space shuttle, space operations require robust, practically fail-proof programming to ensure the safe and effective execution of mission-critical control systems.

Monitoring the health of a machine can be just as tricky as monitoring the health of a human. Like in the human body, a variety of subsystems must work together for a machine to function properly—and a problem in one area can affect the well-being of another. For example, high blood pressure can weaken the arteries throughout the body, and weakened arteries can lead to a stroke or kidney damage. Just as a physician may prescribe medication, a special diet, or a certain exercise routine to maintain the health of a person, NASA employs a systems health management approach to ensure the successful operation of its rockets, crew vehicles, and other complex systems.

For the last 25 years, the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) Division at Ames esearch Center has provided extremely fast supercomputing resources, not only for NASA missions, but for scientific discoveries made outside of NASA as well. The computing environment at NAS includes four powerful high-performance computer systems: Pleiades, Columbia, Schirra, and RTJones. The collective capability of these supercomputers is immense, and in 2010, Pleiades was rated as the sixth most powerful computer in the world, based on a measure of the computer’s rate of execution.

Using the Spitzer Space telescope, NASA scientists detected light from two Jupiter-sized extrasolar planets for the first time in 2005. Findings like these are enabled in part by the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, which conducts scientific research enabled by access to space—such as Earth science, planetary science, heliophysics (the study of the Sun and its effects on Earth and the solar system), and astrophysics (the study of the universe and Earth-like planets).

To better understand and predict global climate, scientists look to the Earth’s oceans. Natural forces like wind, storms, and heat affect ocean surface and sea level, and these changes can shed light on short- and long-term global climate patterns.

On May 20, 1996, astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor watched as a unique structure unfolded in space like a complex trick of origami. From the free-flying Spartan satellite the STS-77 crew had released from the shuttle’s cargo hold, a massive circular antenna inflated into shape. About the size of a tennis court, the Inflatable Antenna Experiment (IAE) was the first space structure of its kind, laying the foundation for future work on inflatable satellites, telescopes, and even astronaut dwellings.