Have you ever wondered how space exploration impacts you?
“Spinoffs” are products and services developed from NASA technology or improved
through NASA partnerships. These innovations—first created to help explore space
and study Earth—are responsible for billions of dollars in both revenue and
saved costs, tens of thousands of jobs created, and for changing the world
Home & City interactive web platform allows you to explore some
of the spinoff technologies you can find in your everyday life, demonstrating
the wider benefits of America’s investments in its space program.
Here are the seven most unexpected items you can find in your homes
and cities which were “spun off” from technologies to enable the study and
exploration of space.
“That’s one small step for man, one
giant leap for mankind.”
On July 20, 1969, millions were glued to their television sets when NASA
astronaut Neil Armstrong offered these famous words via live broadcast, upon
becoming the first man to ever step foot on the Moon. This historic
transmission was delivered from Armstrong’s headset to the headsets of Mission
Control personnel at NASA, and then on to the world.
Improved by the technology that
carried Neil Armstrong’s words, more compact and comfortable headsets were
developed for airline pilots in the 1960s and ‘70s. Today those advancements
continue to evolve in all forms of communications and telephone equipment. Mobile
headsets provide greater efficiency and flexibility for everyone
from professionals to video gamers.
2. Water Quality
On the International Space Station
very little goes to waste. This includes water, which is recovered from every
possible source, cleaned and recycled.
Following our development of a simplified bacteria test for water quality on the space station, one engineer
created a foundation to distribute test kits suitable for use in rural
communities around the world. Water contamination is still a major problem in
many places, and the test helps local communities and governments obtain and
share water quality data using a smartphone app.
3. Skin Cream
We know that on Earth, gravity is a constant. For astronauts in
orbit, however, it’s a different story—and according to a
scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, studying what happens to
bodies in microgravity “can lead to significant new discoveries in human
biology for the benefit of humankind.”
As our researchers experimented with
replicating microgravity conditions in the lab, they invented a bioreactor that
could help simulate conditions that human cells experience in a space-like
environment. This allowed them to perform tissue-growth experiments on the
ground and in space, and eventually, to consider the question of how to protect
human cells from the toxic effects of long-duration space missions.
Now, thanks to this NASA-patented
bioreactor, one company uses agents from human cells that produce collagen to
enrich its skin cream
products. Lab tests have shown the rejuvenating cream to increase skin moisture
content by 76 percent and reduce darkness and wrinkles by more than 50 percent.
From its start, NASA has innovated in all
branches of aeronautics, which has led to numerous advances in helicopters,
including ways to limit vibrations as they fly and advanced composites to build
tougher, safer vehicles.
An industrious helicopter manufacturer that
built up its expertise with NASA contracts later used the same special
vibration analysis equipment to enhance the sound of acoustic
guitars. The company also built the body out of a fiberglass
composite used for rotor blades. The resulting instruments are stronger and
less expensive to produce than those of traditional rosewood and produce a
rich, full sound.
While the International Space Station is the
largest spacecraft ever flown—it’s about the size of a football field—living
and working space for astronauts is still at a premium. NASA created a studio
called the Habitability Design Center to experiment with the interior design of
spacecraft to maximize usable space and make scientific research as efficient
and effective as possible.
An architect who helped NASA design the
interior of the International Space Station launched a company specializing in compact
trailers for camping and exploration. Suitable for a full hookup
campsite or going completely off-grid, the company’s flagship trailer can
accommodate two adults and two children for sleeping and can be customized with
a range of features including a shower, refrigerator, toilet, and more. And it
all fits into a unit light enough to be towed by a four-cylinder car.
6. Blue Light
Blocking Ski Goggles
Skiers and snowboarders face extremely bright sunlight, especially
when it’s reflected off the white snow. That can make it hard to see, and not
just because of glare. The blue in sunlight makes it more difficult to discern
colors at the edge of the visible light spectrum, like reds. A NASA-designed
filter used in snow goggles helps block up to 95 percent of blue
light, making it easier for people on the slopes to see the terrain clearly.
for the Hearing Impaired
Hearing aids, which make sound louder,
can only do so much for those who were born or have become deaf. Cochlear
implants work in a completely different way, converting sound into
digital signals that can be processed by the brain. And the technology
traces back in part to a NASA space shuttle engineer who used skills in
electronics instrumentation and his own experiences with hearing loss to
develop an early version of the life-changing device.
are just a few examples of thousands of NASA Spinoff
and dual-purpose technologies benefiting the world around us.
Martian helicopters? Electric planes? Quiet supersonic
The flight technologies of tomorrow are today’s reality at
NASA. We’re developing a number of innovations that promise to change the
landscape (skyscape?) of aviation. Here are five incredible aeronautic
technologies currently in development:
It might sound like an oxymoron, but ‘quiet boom’ technology
is all the rage with our Aeronautics Mission Directorate. The X-59 QueSST is
an experimental supersonic jet that hopes to reduce the sound of a supersonic
boom to a gentle thump. We will gauge public reaction to this ‘sonic thump,’
evaluating its potential impact if brought into wider use. Ultimately, if the
commercial sector incorporates this technology, the return of supersonic
passenger flight may become a reality!
Electric cars? Pfft. We’re working on an electric PLANE.
Modified from an existing general aviation aircraft, the X-57 will be an all-electric
X-plane, demonstrating a leap-forward in green aviation. The plane seeks to
reach a goal of zero carbon emissions in flight, running on batteries fed by
renewable energy sources!
Our Search and Rescue office develops technologies for
distress beacons and the space systems that locate them. Their new
constellation of medium-Earth orbit instruments can detect a distress call
near-instantaneously, and their second-generation beacons, hitting shelves
soon, are an order of magnitude more accurate than the previous generation!
(The Search and Rescue office also recently debuted a coloring book
that doesn’t save lives but will keep your crayon game strong.)
We don’t just use satellite technology to monitor our
changing planet. We have a number of missions that monitor Earth’s systems from
land, sea and air. In the sky, we use flying laboratories to assess things like
air pollution, greenhouse gasses, smoke from wildfires and so much more. Our
planet may be changing, but we have you covered.
Though we at NASA are big fans of cake frosting, that’s not
the icing we’re researching. Ice that forms on a plane mid-flight can disrupt
the airflow around the plane and inside the engine, increasing drag, reducing
lift and even causing loss of power. Ice can also harm a number of other things
important to a safe flight. We’re developing tools and methods for evaluating
and simulating the growth of ice on aircraft. This will help aid in designing
future aircraft that are more resilient to icing, making aviation safer.
There you have it, five technologies taking aeronautics into
the future, safely down to the ground and even to other planets! To stay up to
date on the latest and greatest in science and technology, check out our
Simulating alien worlds, designing spacecraft with origami and using tiny fossils to understand the lives of ancient organisms are all in a day’s work for interns at NASA.
Here’s how interns are taking our missions and science farther.
1. Connecting Satellites in Space
Becca Foust looks as if she’s literally in space – or, at least, on a sci-fi movie set. She’s surrounded by black, except for the brilliant white comet model suspended behind her. Beneath the socks she donned just for this purpose, the black floor reflects the scene like perfectly still water across a lake as she describes what happens here: “We have five spacecraft simulators that ‘fly’ in a specially designed flat-floor facility,” she says. “The spacecraft simulators use air bearings to lift the robots off the floor, kind of like a reverse air hockey table. The top part of the spacecraft simulators can move up and down and rotate all around in a similar way to real satellites.” It’s here, in this test bed on the Caltech campus, that Foust is testing an algorithm she’s developing to autonomously assemble and disassemble satellites in space. “I like to call it space K’nex, like the toys. We’re using a bunch of component satellites and trying to figure out how to bring all of the pieces together and make them fit together in orbit,” she says. A NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, who splits her time between Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), working with Soon-Jo Chung and Fred Hadaegh, respectively, Foust is currently earning her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says of her fellowship, “I hope my research leads to smarter, more efficient satellite systems for in-space construction and assembly.”
2. Diving Deep on the Science of Alien Oceans
Three years ago, math and science were just subjects Kathy Vega taught her students as part of Teach for America. Vega, whose family emigrated from El Salvador, was the first in her family to go to college. She had always been interested in space and even dreamed about being an astronaut one day, but earned a degree in political science so she could get involved in issues affecting her community. But between teaching and encouraging her family to go into science, It was only a matter of time before she realized just how much she wanted to be in the STEM world herself. Now an intern at NASA JPL and in the middle of earning a second degree, this time in engineering physics, Vega is working on an experiment that will help scientists search for life beyond Earth.
“My project is setting up an experiment to simulate possible ocean compositions that would exist on other worlds,” says Vega. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, are key targets in the search for life beyond Earth because they show evidence of global oceans and geologic activity. Those factors could allow life to thrive. JPL is already building a spacecraft designed to orbit Europa and planning for another to land on the icy moon’s surface. “Eventually, [this experiment] will help us prepare for the development of landers to go to Europa, Enceladus and another one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, to collect seismic measurements that we can compare to our simulated ones,” says Vega. “I feel as though I’m laying the foundation for these missions.”
3. Unfolding Views on Planets Beyond Our Solar System
“Origami is going to space now? This is amazing!” Chris Esquer-Rosas had been folding – and unfolding – origami since the fourth grade, carefully measuring the intricate patterns and angles produced by the folds and then creating new forms from what he’d learned. “Origami involves a lot of math. A lot of people don’t realize that. But what actually goes into it is lots of geometric shapes and angles that you have to account for,” says Esquer-Rosas. Until three years ago, the computer engineering student at San Bernardino College had no idea that his origami hobby would turn into an internship opportunity at NASA JPL. That is, until his long-time friend, fellow origami artist and JPL intern Robert Salazar connected him with the Starshade project. Starshade has been proposed as a way to suppress starlight that would otherwise drown out the light from planets outside our solar system so we can characterize them and even find out if they’re likely to support life. Making that happen requires some heavy origami – unfurling a precisely-designed, sunflower-shaped structure the size of a baseball diamond from a package about half the size of a pitcher’s mound. It’s Esquer-Rosas’ project this summer to make sure Starshade’s “petals” unfurl without a hitch. Says Esquer-Rosas, “[The interns] are on the front lines of testing out the hardware and making sure everything works. I feel as though we’re contributing a lot to how this thing is eventually going to deploy in space.”
4. Making Leaps in Extreme Robotics
Wheeled rovers may be the norm on Mars, but Sawyer Elliott thinks a different kind of rolling robot could be the Red Planet explorer of the future. This is Elliott’s second year as a fellow at NASA JPL, researching the use of a cube-shaped robot for maneuvering around extreme environments, like rocky slopes on Mars or places with very little gravity, like asteroids. A graduate student in aerospace engineering at Cornell University, Elliott spent his last stint at JPL developing and testing the feasibility of such a rover. “I started off working solely on the rover and looking at can we make this work in a real-world environment with actual gravity,” says Elliott. “It turns out we could.” So this summer, he’s been improving the controls that get it rolling or even hopping on command. In the future, Elliott hopes to keep his research rolling along as a fellow at JPL or another NASA center. “I’m only getting more and more interested as I go, so I guess that’s a good sign,” he says.
5. Starting from the Ground Up
Before the countdown to launch or the assembling of parts or the gathering of mission scientists and engineers, there are people like Joshua Gaston who are helping turn what’s little more than an idea into something more. As an intern with NASA JPL’s project formulation team, Gaston is helping pave the way for a mission concept that aims to send dozens of tiny satellites, called CubeSats, beyond Earth’s gravity to other bodies in the solar system. “This is sort of like step one,” says Gaston. “We have this idea and we need to figure out how to make it happen.” Gaston’s role is to analyze whether various CubeSat models can be outfitted with the needed science instruments and still make weight. Mass is an important consideration in mission planning because it affects everything from the cost to the launch vehicle to the ability to launch at all. Gaston, an aerospace engineering student at Tuskegee University, says of his project, “It seems like a small role, but at the same time, it’s kind of big. If you don’t know where things are going to go on your spacecraft or you don’t know how the spacecraft is going to look, it’s hard to even get the proposal selected.”
6. Finding Life on the Rocks
By putting tiny samples of fossils barely visible to the human eye through a chemical process, a team of NASA JPL scientists is revealing details about organisms that left their mark on Earth billions of years ago. Now, they have set their sights on studying the first samples returned from Mars in the future. But searching for signatures of life in such a rare and limited resource means the team will have to get the most science they can out of the smallest sample possible. That’s where Amanda Allen, an intern working with the team in JPL’s Astrobiogeochemistry, or abcLab, comes in. “Using the current, state-of-the-art method, you need a sample that’s 10 times larger than we’re aiming for,” says Allen, an Earth science undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, who is doing her fifth internship at JPL. “I’m trying to get a different method to work.” Allen, who was involved in theater and costume design before deciding to pursue Earth science, says her “superpower” has always been her ability to find things. “If there’s something cool to find on Mars related to astrobiology, I think I can help with that,” she says.
7. Taking Space Flight Farther
If everything goes as planned and a thruster like the one Camille V. Yoke is working on eventually helps send astronauts to Mars, she’ll probably be first in line to play the Mark Watney role. “I’m a fan of the Mark Watney style of life [in “The Martian”], where you’re stranded on a planet somewhere and the only thing between you and death is your own ability to work through problems and engineer things on a shoestring,” says Yoke. A physics major at the University of South Carolina, Yoke is interning with a team that’s developing a next-generation electric thruster designed to accelerate spacecraft more efficiently through the solar system. “Today there was a brief period in which I knew something that nobody else on the planet knew – for 20 minutes before I went and told my boss,” says Yoke. “You feel like you’re contributing when you know that you have discovered something new.”
8. Searching for Life Beyond Our Solar System
Without the option to travel thousands or even tens of light-years from Earth in a single lifetime, scientists hoping to discover signs of life on planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets, are instead creating their own right here on Earth. This is Tre’Shunda James’ second summer simulating alien worlds as an intern at NASA JPL. Using an algorithm developed by her mentor, Renyu Hu, James makes small changes to the atmospheric makeup of theoretical worlds and analyzes whether the combination creates a habitable environment. “This model is a theoretical basis that we can apply to many exoplanets that are discovered,” says James, a chemistry and physics major at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “In that way, it’s really pushing the field forward in terms of finding out if life could exist on these planets.” James, who recently became a first-time co-author on a scientific paper about the team’s findings, says she feels as though she’s contributing to furthering the search for life beyond Earth while also bringing diversity to her field. “I feel like just being here, exploring this field, is pushing the boundaries, and I’m excited about that.”
9. Spinning Up a Mars Helicopter
Chloeleen Mena’s role on the Mars Helicopter project may be small, but so is the helicopter designed to make the first flight on the Red Planet. Mena, an electrical engineering student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, started her NASA JPL internship just days after NASA announced that the helicopter, which had been in development at JPL for nearly five years, would be going to the Red Planet aboard the Mars 2020 rover. This summer, Mena is helping test a part needed to deploy the helicopter from the rover once it lands on Mars, as well as writing procedures for future tests. “Even though my tasks are relatively small, it’s part of a bigger whole,” she says.
10. Preparing to See the Unseen on Jupiter’s Moon Europa
In the 2020s, we’re planning to send a spacecraft to the next frontier in the search for life beyond Earth: Jupiter’s moon Europa. Swathed in ice that’s intersected by deep reddish gashes, Europa has unveiled intriguing clues about what might lie beneath its surface – including a global ocean that could be hospitable to life. Knowing for sure hinges on a radar instrument that will fly aboard the Europa Clipper orbiter to peer below the ice with a sort of X-ray vision and scout locations to set down a potential future lander. To make sure everything works as planned, NASA JPL intern Zachary Luppen is creating software to test key components of the radar instrument. “Whatever we need to do to make sure it operates perfectly during the mission,” says Luppen. In addition to helping things run smoothly, the astronomy and physics major says he hopes to play a role in answering one of humanity’s biggest questions. “Contributing to the mission is great in itself,” says Luppen. “But also just trying to make as many people aware as possible that this science is going on, that it’s worth doing and worth finding out, especially if we were to eventually find life on Europa. That changes humanity forever!”
Read the full web version of this week’s ‘Solar System: 10 Things to Know” article HERE.
We could talk all day about how our satellite data is crucial for Earth science…tracking ocean currents, monitoring natural disasters, soil mapping – the list goes on and on.
But did you know there is another way this data can improve life here on Earth?
Our satellite data can be used to build businesses and commercial products – but finding and using this data has been a daunting task for many potential users because it’s been stored across dozens of websites.
RST offers an all-in-one approach to finding and using our Earth Science data, the tools needed to analyze it, and software to build your own tools.
Before, we had our petabytes on petabytes of information spread out across dozens of websites – not to mention the various software tools needed to interpret the data.
Now, RST helps users find everything they need while having only one browser open.
Feeling inspired to innovate with our data? Here are just a few examples of how other companies have taken satellite data and turned it into products, known as NASA spinoffs, that are helping our planet today.
1. Bringing Landscape into Focus
We have a number of imaging systems for locating fires, but none were capable of identifying small fires or indicating the flames’ intensity. Thanks to a series of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts between our Ames Research Center and Xiomas Technologies LLC, the Wide Area Imager aerial scanner does just that. While we and the U.S. Forest Service use it for fire detection, the tool is also being used by municipalities for detailed aerial surveillance projects.
2. Monitoring the Nation’s Forests with the Help of Our Satellites
Have you ever thought about the long-term effects of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, on forest life? How about the big-time damage caused by little pests, like webworms?
Our Stennis Space Center did, along with multiple forest services and environmental threat assessment centers. They partnered to create an early warning system to identify, characterize, and track disturbances from potential forest threats using our satellite data. The result was ForWarn, which is now being used by federal and state forest and natural resource managers.
3. Informing Forecasts of Crop Growth
Want to hear a corny story?
Every year Stennis teams up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to host a program called Ag 20/20 to utilize remote sensing technology for operational use in agricultural crop management practices at the level of individual farms. During Ag 20/20 in 2000, an engineering contractor developed models for using our satellite data to predict corn crop yield. The model was eventually sold to Genscape Inc., which has commercialized it as LandViewer. Sold under a subscription model, LandViewer software provides predictions of corn production to ethanol plants and grain traders.
4. Water Mapping Technology Rebuilds Lives in Arid Regions
No joking around here. Lives depend on the ability to find precious water in areas with little of it.
Using our Landsat satellite and other topographical data, Radar Technologies International developed an algorithm-based software program that can locate underground water sources. Working with international organizations and governments, the firm is helping to provide water for refugees and other people in drought-stricken regions such as Kenya, Sudan, and Afghanistan.
5. Satellite Maps Deliver More Realistic Gaming
Are you more of the creative type? This last entry used satellite data to help people really get into their gameplay.
When Electronic Arts (EA) decided to make SSX, a snowboarding video game, it faced challenges in creating realistic-looking mountains. The solution was our ASTER Global Digital Elevation Map, made available by our Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which EA used to create 28 real-life mountains from 9 different ranges for its award-winning game.
You know that colorful crystal garden you grew as a kid?
Yeah, we do that in space now.
Chemical Gardens, a new investigation aboard the International Space Station takes a classic science experiment to space with the hope of improving our understanding of gravity’s impact on their structural formation.
Here on Earth, chemical gardens are most often used to teach students about things like chemical reactions.
Chemical gardens form when dissolvable metal salts are placed in an aqueous solution containing anions such as silicate, borate, phosphate, or carbonate.
Satellites are crucial to everyday life and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to manufacture and launch. Currently, they are simply decommissioned when they run out of fuel. There is a better way, and it centers on satellite servicing, which can make spaceflight more sustainable, affordable, and resilient. Our satellite servicing technologies will open up a new world where fleet managers can call on robotic mechanics to diagnose, maintain and extend the lifespan of their assets.
Our new and unique robot is designed to test robotic satellite servicing capabilities. Standing 10 feet tall and 16 feet wide, the six-legged “hexapod” robot helps engineers perfect technologies before they’re put to use in space.
Here are SIX interesting facts about the hexapod:
1. The hexapod has six degrees of freedom.
This essentially means the robot can move in six directions—three translational directions (forward and backward, up and down and left and right), and three rotational directions (roll, pitch and yaw). Because of its wide range of movement, the hexapod mimics the way a satellite moves in zero gravity.
2. It can move up to eight inches per second and can extend up to 13 feet (but usually doesn’t).
Like most space simulators, the hexapod typically moves slowly at about one inch per second. During tests, it remains positioned about nine feet off the floor to line up with and interact with a robotic servicing arm mounted to an arch nearby. However, the robot can move at speeds up to eight inches per second and extend/reach nearly 13 feet high!
3. The hexapod tests mission elements without humans.
The hexapod is crucial to testing for our Restore-L project, which will prove a combination of technologies needed to robotically refuel a satellite not originally designed to be refueled in space.
Perhaps the most difficult part of refueling a satellite in space is the autonomous rendezvous and grapple stage. A satellite in need of fuel might be moving 16,500 miles per hour in the darkness of space. A servicer satellite will need to match its speed and approach the client satellite, then grab it. This nail-biting stage needs to be done autonomously by the spacecraft’s systems (no humans controlling operations from the ground).
The hexapod helps us practice this never-before-attempted feat in space-like conditions. Eventually a suite of satellite servicing capabilities could be incorporated in other missions.
4. This type of robot is also used for flight and roller coaster simulators.
Because of the hexapod’s unparalleled* ability to handle a high load capacity and range of movement, while maintaining a high degree of precision and repeatability, a similar kind of robot is used for flight and roller coaster simulators.
*Pun intended: the hexapod is what is referred to as a parallel motion robot
5. The hexapod was designed and made in the U S of A.
The hexapod was designed and built by a small, New Hampshire-based company called Mikrolar. Mikrolar designs and produces custom robots that offer a wide range of motion and high degree of precision, for a wide variety of applications.
6. The robot lives at our Goddard Space Flight Center’s Robotic Operations Center.
The hexapod conducts crucial tests at our Goddard Space Flight Center’s Robotic Operations Center (ROC). The ROC is a 5,000-square-foot facility with 50 feet high ceilings. It acts as an incubator for satellite servicing technologies. Within its black curtain-lined walls, space systems, components and tasks are put to the test in simulated environments, refined and finally declared ready for action in orbit.
The hexapod is not alone in the ROC. Five other robots test satellite servicing capabilities. Engineers use these robots to practice robotic repairs on satellites rendezvousing with objects in space.
A sextant is a tool for measuring the angular altitude of a star above the horizon and has helped guide sailors across oceans for centuries. It is now being tested aboard the International Space Station as a potential emergency navigation tool for guiding future spacecraft across the cosmos. The Sextant Navigation investigation will test the use of a hand-held sextant that utilizes star sighting in microgravity.
Our James Webb Space Telescope is the most ambitious and complex space science observatory ever built. It will study every phase in the history of our universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.
In order to carry out such a daring mission, many innovative and powerful new technologies were developed specifically to enable Webb to achieve its primary mission.
Here are 5 technologies that were developed to help Webb push the boundaries of space exploration and discovery:
Microshutters are basically tiny windows with shutters that each measure 100 by 200 microns, or about the size of a bundle of only a few human hairs.
The microshutter device will record the spectra of light from distant objects (spectroscopy is simply the science of measuring the intensity of light at different wavelengths. The graphical representations of these measurements are called spectra.)
Other spectroscopic instruments have flown in space before but none have had the capability to enable high-resolution observation of up to 100 objects simultaneously, which means much more scientific investigating can get done in less time.
Webb’s backplane is the large structure that holds and supports the big hexagonal mirrors of the telescope, you can think of it as the telescope’s “spine”. The backplane has an important job as it must carry not only the 6.5 m (over 21 foot) diameter primary mirror plus other telescope optics, but also the entire module of scientific instruments. It also needs to be essentially motionless while the mirrors move to see far into deep space. All told, the backplane carries more than 2400kg (2.5 tons) of hardware.
This structure is also designed to provide unprecedented thermal stability performance at temperatures colder than -400°F (-240°C). At these temperatures, the backplane was engineered to be steady down to 32 nanometers, which is 1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair!
One of the Webb Space Telescope’s science goals is to look back through time to when galaxies were first forming. Webb will do this by observing galaxies that are very distant, at over 13 billion light years away from us. To see such far-off and faint objects, Webb needs a large mirror.
Webb’s scientists and engineers determined that a primary mirror 6.5 meters across is what was needed to measure the light from these distant galaxies. Building a mirror this large is challenging, even for use on the ground. Plus, a mirror this large has never been launched into space before!
If the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror were scaled to be large enough for Webb, it would be too heavy to launch into orbit. The Webb team had to find new ways to build the mirror so that it would be light enough – only 1/10 of the mass of Hubble’s mirror per unit area – yet very strong.
Read more about how we designed and created Webb’s unique mirrors HERE.
4. Wavefront Sensing and Control
Wavefront sensing and control is a technical term used to describe the subsystem that was required to sense and correct any errors in the telescope’s optics. This is especially necessary because all 18 segments have to work together as a single giant mirror.
The work performed on the telescope optics resulted in a NASA tech spinoff for diagnosing eye conditions and accurate mapping of the eye. This spinoff supports research in cataracts, keratoconus (an eye condition that causes reduced vision), and eye movement – and improvements in the LASIK procedure.
Webb’s primary science comes from infrared light, which is essentially heat energy. To detect the extremely faint heat signals of astronomical objects that are incredibly far away, the telescope itself has to be very cold and stable. This means we not only have to protect Webb from external sources of light and heat (like the Sun and the Earth), but we also have to make all the telescope elements very cold so they don’t emit their own heat energy that could swamp the sensitive instruments. The temperature also must be kept constant so that materials aren’t shrinking and expanding, which would throw off the precise alignment of the optics.
Each of the five layers of the sunshield is incredibly thin. Despite the thin layers, they will keep the cold side of the telescope at around -400°F (-240°C), while the Sun-facing side will be 185°F (85°C). This means you could actually freeze nitrogen on the cold side (not just liquify it), and almost boil water on the hot side. The sunshield gives the telescope the equivalent protection of a sunscreen with SPF 1 million!
Some of the earliest human explorers used mechanical tools called sextants to navigate vast oceans and discover new lands. Today, high-tech tools navigate microscopic DNA to discover previously unidentified organisms. Scientists aboard the International Space Station soon will have both types of tools at their disposal.
Our Gemini missions conducted the first sextant sightings from a spacecraft, and designers built a sextant into Apollo vehicles as a lost-communications navigation backup. The Sextant Navigation investigation tests use of a hand-held sextant for emergency navigation on missions in deep space as humans begin to travel farther from Earth.
Jim Lovell (far left) demonstrated on Apollo 8 that sextant navigation could return a space vehicle home.
The remoteness and constrained resources of living in space require simple but effective processes and procedures to monitor the presence of microbial life, some of which might be harmful. Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) advances the use of sequencing processes to identify microbes aboard the space station that current methods cannot detect and to assess mutations in the microbial genome that may be due to spaceflight.
Genes in Space 3 performed in-flight identification of bacteria on the station for the first time. BEST takes that one step farther, identifying unknown microbial organisms using a process that sequences directly from a sample with minimal preparation, rather than with the traditional technique that requires growing a culture from the sample.
Adding these new processes to the proven technology opens new avenues for inflight research, such as how microorganisms on the station change or adapt to spaceflight.
The investigation’s sequencing components provide important information on the station’s microbial occupants, including which organisms are present and how they respond to the spaceflight environment – insight that could help protect humans during future space exploration. Knowledge gained from BEST could also provide new ways to monitor the presence of microbes in remote locations on Earth.
Moving on to science at a scale even smaller than a microbe, the new Cold Atom Lab (CAL) facility could help answer some big questions in modern physics.
CAL creates a temperature ten billion (Yup. BILLION) times colder than the vacuum of space, then uses lasers and magnetic forces to slow down atoms until they are almost motionless. CAL makes it possible to observe these ultra-cold atoms for much longer in the microgravity environment on the space station than would be possible on the ground.
Results of this research could potentially lead to a number of improved technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.
The Experiment Cubes are easy to install and remove, come in different sizes and can be built with commercial off-the-shelf components, significantly reducing the cost and time to develop experiments.
ICE Cubes removes barriers that limit access to space, providing more people access to flight opportunities. Potential fields of research range from pharmaceutical development to experiments on stem cells, radiation, and microbiology, fluid sciences, and more.
Join scientists and researchers as they discuss some of the investigations that will be delivered to the station on Saturday, May 19 at 1 p.m. EDT at nasa.gov/live. Have questions? Use #askNASA
CubeSat Facebook Live
The International Space Station is often used to deploy small satellites, a low-cost way to test technology and science techniques in space. On board this time, for deployment later this summer, are three CubeSats that will help us monitor rain and snow, study weather and detect and filter radio frequency interference (RFI).
Join us on Facebook Live on Saturday, May 19 at 3:30 p.m. EDT on the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility page to hear from experts and ask them your questions about these small satellites.
Tune in live at nasa.gov/live as mission managers provide an overview and status of launch operations at 11 a.m. EDT on Sunday, May 20. Have questions? Use #askNASA
The International Space Station is often used to deploy small satellites, a low-cost way to test technology and science techniques in space.
On board this time, for deployment later this summer, are…
The ‘Rabbit’ in the RainCube
As its name suggests, RainCube will use radar to measure rain and snowfall. CubeSats are measured in increments of 1U (A CubeSat unit, or 1U, is roughly equivalent to a 4-inch box, or 10x10x10 centimeters). The RainCube antenna has to be small enough to be crammed into a 1.5U container; the entire satellite is about as big as a cereal box.
“It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” said Nacer Chahat, a specialist in antenna design at our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Shrinking the size of the radar is a challenge for us. As space engineers, we usually have lots of volume, so building antennas packed into a small volume isn’t something we’re trained to do.”
That small antenna will deploy in space, like an upside-down umbrella. To maintain its small size, the antenna relies on the high-frequency Ka-band wavelength – good for profiling rain and snow. Ka-band also allows for an exponential increase in sending data over long distances, making it the perfect tool for telecommunications.
TEMPEST-D millimeter-wave observations have the ability to penetrate into clouds to where precipitation initiation occurs. By measuring the evolution of clouds from the moment of the onset of precipitation, a future TEMPEST constellation mission could improve weather forecasting and improve our understanding of cloud processes, essential to understanding climate change.
Cutting Through the Noise
CubeRRT, also the size of a cereal box, will space test a small component designed to detect and filter radio frequency interference (RFI). RFI is everywhere, from cellphones, radio and TV transmissions, satellite broadcasts and other sources. You probably recognize it as that annoying static when you can’t seem to get your favorite radio station to come in clearly because another station is nearby on the dial.
The same interference that causes radio static also affects the quality of data that instruments like microwave radiometers collect. As the number of RFI-causing devices increases globally, our satellite instruments – specifically, microwave radiometers that gather data on soil moisture, meteorology, climate and more – will be more challenged in collecting high-quality data.
That’s where CubeSat Radiometer Radio frequency interference Technology (CubeRRT) comes in. The small satellite will be carrying a new technology to detect and filter any RFI the satellite encounters in real-time from space. This will reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted back to Earth – increasing the quality of important weather and climate measurements.
Searching the Halo of the Milky Way
Did you know that we’re still looking for half of the normal matter that makes up the universe? Scientists have taken a census of all the stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies — and we’re coming up short, based on what we know about the early days of the cosmos.
That missing matter might be hiding in tendrils of hot gas between galaxies. Or it might be in the halos of hot gas around individual galaxies like our own Milky Way. But if it’s there, why haven’t we seen it? It could be that it’s so hot that it glows in a spectrum of X-rays we haven’t looked at before.
Image Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies
Enter HaloSat. Led by the University of Iowa, HaloSat will search the halo of the Milky Way for the emissions oxygen gives off at these very high temperatures. Most other X-ray satellites look at narrow patches of the sky and at individual sources. HaloSat will look at large swaths of the sky at a time, which will help us figure out the geometry of the halo — whether it surrounds the galaxy more like a fried egg or a sphere. Knowing the halo’s shape will in turn help us figure out the mass, which may help us discover if the universe’s missing matter is in galactic halos.
CubeSats for All
Small satellites benefit Earth and its people (us!) in multiple ways. From Earth imaging satellites that help meteorologists to predict storm strengths and direction, to satellites that focus on technology demonstrations to help determine what materials function best in a microgravity environment, the science enabled by CubeSats is diverse.
They are also a pathway to space science for students. Our CubeSat Launch initiative (CSLI) provides access to space for small satellites developed by our Centers and programs, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations. Since the program began, more than 50 educational CubeSats have flown. In 2016, students built the first CubeSat deployed into space by an elementary school.