7 Great NASA Technologies You Don't Know About

Despite what you might have heard, NASA is harder at work than ever. We take a look at seven technologies NASA is developing to take humans to Mars and beyond.
  • It's easy to think NASA has fallen on rough times. In May the White House proposed a fiscal year budget of about $19.1 billion for the agency for 2018, down $560 million from the 2017 budget. Among other items, the proposed budget cuts include closing NASA's Office of Education, a move that has gathered bipartisan backlash, as well as plans to shutter the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and defund the Restore-L project to service satellites in space. NASA has said it will shift its efforts from ARM toward developing solar-electric propulsion for spacecraft.

    In a statement released on the budget Robert Lightfoot, Acting Administrator at NASA, remained optimistic saying, “We’re pleased by our top line number of $19.1 billion, which reflects the President’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving.”

    Lightfoot also said the new budget would not deter NASA's plans for a Mars mission. “We’ve had a horizon goal for some time now of reaching Mars, and this budget sustains that work and also provides the resources to keep exploring our solar system and look beyond it,” he said. “... We can’t do everything, but we can certainly do a lot.”

    Back in April, during a keynote at the 2017 Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in Boston, Jason Crusan, Director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA, was also optimistic about the agency's work. “We have more development going on at NASA than ever in the history of the agency,” he told the audience.

    With the International Space Station in Earth's orbit for over a decade and longer-term ambitions of landing humans on Mars by the year 2030, NASA has been developing new systems and technology around everything from 3D printing, to virtual reality (VR), and even biology, the general public just may not know about it. 

    Click through to see 7 of the greatest innovations NASA is working on to usher in the next era of human space exploration.  

  • Hybrid Reality

    While many companies are just getting into VR and augmented reality (AR) due to a recent resurgence in VR technology, NASA has been using VR as a training tool for over 20 years. In a talk at the Nvidia GPU Technology Conference (GTC), Matthew Noyes, Aerospace Technologist, Robotics and Automation at NASA, discussed the latest training tools from NASA – what the agency is calling Hybrid Reality (HR).

    HR put simply is a type of Mixed Reality in which VR headsets and computers are used to overlay digital simulations over physical objects, allowing astronauts to be trained in scaled digital environments. “In previous training using physical mockups there were lots of distractions,” Noyes said. “[Physical mockups] were effective at teaching [astronauts] how to perform a task, but not at minimizing distractions and simulating the psychological profile. A mission to Mars is unlike any before. Astronauts will be truly alone and not able to rely on Mission Control all the time. Hybrid reality improves the VR experience to better simulate how they will respond.”

    NASA is also able to create 3D-printed replicas of many of the tools the astronauts will use in space. While the tools themselves aren't functional they provide astronauts with a realistic weight and feel. And with a high-quality digital overlay, the tool can look very much like the real thing. “We can print replicas of million-dollar tools for $20,” Noyes said. “3D-printed replicas also weigh what they would way in light gravity to simulate the fatigue astronauts will experience on an EVA.” 

    [Image source: Matthew Noyes / NASA]

  • The Deep Space Gateway and Transport

    NASA's Mars mission plans aren't as direct as the Moon landing. Rather than shoot for a straight shot to the red planet, NASA is aiming to accomplish the mission in a series of relay-like steps. Part of this is establishing a space sport in lunar orbit from which spacecraft can be built, repaired, launched, and where supplies can be stored – a Deep Space Gateway (DSG). The DSG will also serve as a testing ground for the powerful integrated SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, designed to take astronauts into deep space, and will also house a small crew and also facilitate research.

    “I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can move to different orbits to enable a variety of missions,” William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, said in a statement. “The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system.” 

    Coupled with this will be a Deep Space Transport (DST), which will be designed to travel Mars-class distances. NASA envisions the DST as a reusable spacecraft that will use a combination of electric and chemical propulsion. It would travel back and forth between its destination (i.e. Mars) and the DSG, where it can be serviced, resupplied, and sent out again. NASA is currently aiming to conduct a one-year crewed mission aboard the DST in lunar vicinity sometime in the 2020s. If successful the mission will give NASA an indication of how ready the system is to travel beyond the Earth-moon system.

    [Image source: NASA]

  • Habitats in Space

    If you think certain parts of America are suffering a housing crisis, just wait until astronauts reach deep space. To that end NASA has partnered with several private companies to develop sustainable habits for humans in space. One of the most promising is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) developed by Bigelow Aerospace. This month BEAM is celebrating its one-year anniversary, having been launched and attached to the International Space Station (ISS) last year as part of a planned two-year project.

    The BEAM is aimed at testing the efficacy of soft materials over rigid ones for habitats in space. When packed for transport the BEAM measures 5.7 feet long and 7.75 feet in diameter. When expanded it measures 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter. It weights 3,000 pounds and has 560 cubic feet of pressurized volume. The habitat is equipped with a variety of sensors, allowing NASA and Bigelow to measure temperature, pressure, and radiation exposure to gauge the habitat's effectiveness in protecting astronauts. Researchers are also monitoring how well the BEAM's layers and shielding protect against orbital debris impacts. In addition to providing a viable deep space habitat for astronauts, NASA also hopes the BEAM will have some practical applications on Earth as a deployable habitat for disaster zones and remote locations. 

    [Image source: Bigelow Aerospace / NASA ] 

  • 3D Printing in Zero-G

    3D printing is the most viable solution to the heavy burden of equipment transport and manufacture in deep space. After all it'll be a lot easier to let astronauts build what they need themselves rather than sending it all along with them. In 2015, as part of a project NASA calls the Zero-G Technology Demonstration, a 3D printer on board the ISS manufactured the first the first 3-D printed object in space (a printhead faceplate). The ultimate goal is to create what NASA calls a “machine shop in space” capable of manufacturing all of the tools and parts astronauts may need, without them needing to be shipped from Earth.

    While the 3D printer on board ISS uses your typical plastic filament extrusion, NASA's Crusan told the audience at ESC that NASA is actively working to create a multimaterial 3D printing facility (dubbed a “FabLab”) on the ISS that will be capable of printing metals and even circuits.

    "NASA is great at planning for component failures and contingencies; however, there’s always the potential for unknown scenarios that you couldn’t possibly think of ahead of time," Ken Cooper, the principal investigator for 3D Printing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a statement. "That’s where a 3D printer in space can pay off. While the first experiment is designed to test the 3D printing process in microgravity, it is the first step in sustaining longer missions beyond low-Earth orbit."

    [Image source: NASA]

  • CubeSats

    For over a decade NASA has been using tiny satellites, called CubeSats, in low-Earth orbit, in conjunction with research institutions and commercial companies, as a way of conducting cheap experiments and technology demonstrations. The typical CubeSat measures about four inches on each side, has a volume of about one quart, and weighs less than three pounds per unit.

    NASA also gives universities, non-profits, and even high schools an opportunity to launch their own CubeSats through its CubeSat Launch Initiative,. The recent Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) XVII mission, launched in April, deployed three CubeSats (two developed by universities) one for cosmic x-ray measurement, one for taking cloud ice measurements, and one for testing a low-temperature energy storage system.

    Crusan said that over 100 CubeSats have been launched from the ISS to date with the help of private companies like Orbital ATK, SpaceX, and NanoRacks. NASA is also looking to leverage CubeSats for deep space, as well. “Cubestas will be the probes we send out before we send humans places,” he said. 

    [Image source: NASA]

  • BioNutrients

    Right now astronauts on board the ISS receive regular shipments of food from Earth. That's not a sustainable strategy for deep space, particularly given that food can go bad or lose nutritional value on longer missions.

    To tackle this problem NASA is actively working on what it calls Synthetic Biology – finding innovative ways of delivering astronauts the nutrients they need. “We cannot store food in space past three years or so without significant nutrient reduction. So we're going to grow our nutrients,” Crusan said.

    The idea is to create single-use packets that deliver on-demand nutrients (just add water). The first demonstrations will use a yeast engineered to product Zeaxanthin, a plant-based nutrient that is important maintaining eye health and could become vital for astronauts spending an extended period of time in space.

    Crusan said a big question around NASA's synthetic biology efforts has been finding a way of making all of the carbon dioxide naturally produced on a space mission useful. NASA is currently experimenting with ways of using chemical methods, alongside manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, to convert carbon dioxide into organic materials that can then be used to geneitcall engineer microbes to produce plastics, fibers, and other materials that can be used for manufacturing in space. Instead of bringing parts and materials with them the first colonists on Mars may be able to build structures, spare parts, and tools by having microbes convert the raw materials found on Mars into workable materials.  

    [Image source: NASA]

  • Spacecraft Fire Safety (Saffire)

    Safety is always a the number one concern with any space mission, and even more so when you're talking about deep space exploration. One of the more interesting projects NASA has undertaken is looking at fire safety. “Flames don't behave in space like we thought,” Crusan said.

    To that end NASA has created the Saffire Program with the aim of understanding material flammability and how fire behaves in microgravity in space in order to develop smoke detectors and fire suppression systems for space as well as astronaut protocols for dealing with fire emergencies.

    In early June, NASA conducted the third in a series of fire experiments (Saffire-III) aboard the ISS. A cargo spacecraft, orbiting Earth, and filled with trash and disposable items, was launched from the ISS and remotely ignited. Researchers measured the rate at which the flame spread across a 3.28-foot-long sample of cotton-fiberglass fabric inside of a module (shown).

    Gary A. Ruff, who leads the Saffire program out of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, explained in a statement from NASA that the data will allow NASA to build increasingly better computational models on how fire acts and can be fought in space. “For Saffire-I, we measured flame spread rates for burns both in the same direction as the air flow and in the opposite direction of the air flow,” Ruff said. “We need to get additional data at another air flow speed using the same material to compare with the predictions of the computational model...The biggest surprise is how slowly the flames are spreading across the samples. Based on smaller samples in controlled burns on the space station, we expected flames on these larger samples to be up to three times faster than we’ve observed.”

    The next phases of Saffire, IV through VI, are being developed now and will continue to provide data on large-scale flammability but will also look at fire detection methods as well as post-fire monitoring and cleanup.

    [Image source: NASA]


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Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.

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