Martian technology comes down to Earth; NASA asks students to help

CuriosityThere’s some interesting news coming from the Mars Science Laboratory, with NASA revealing that Curiosity is contributing to matters of safety here on Earth.

Over the decades, NASA has established a strong track record for space-focused technologies having spin-off applications here on Earth. The Apollo programme, for example, lead to some 1,400 patents and technical developments which impacted all of our lives. These have included:

  • Physical therapy and athletic development machine used by football teams, sports clinics, and medical rehabilitation centres
  • Water purification systems used in community water supply systems and cooling towers to kill bacteria, viruses and algae
  • Freeze-drying technology to preserve nutritional value and taste in foods; improvements in kidney dialysis arising from the need to recycle fluids in space
  • The widespread use of flame-resistant textiles used by fire fighters, service personnel, etc.
  • Sensor system to detect the presence of hazardous gases in oil fields, refineries, offshore platforms, chemical plants, waste storage sites, and other locations where gases could be released into the environment.
Lance Christensen of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, demonstrates the gas leak detection device developed using his tunable laser spectrometer develop for the Mars Science Laboratory

It is in reference to this last aspect of spin-off technologies that Curiosity is contributing to safety on Earth.

On Wednesday October 2nd, NASA’s JPL announced that technology developed for the Curiosity rover is now being tested by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) which should enable their personnel to identify possible leak locations, fast-tracking their ability to repair gas leaks.

The new system utilises laser-based technology developed for MSL to aid detection of Methane on Mars. It is a spin-off of the tunable laser spectrometer, developed by JPL science engineer Lance Christensen, and one of the principal science instruments carried within the body of the Mars rover. The PG&E application utilities elements of the laser system together with a tablet computer in a hand-held device. This allows field engineers to detect trace elements of gas coming from a leak by passing the detector over the ground above the line of the pipe. Testing is currently underway, and it is hoped that if successful, it will see the system introduced for general use in the US utility industry in 2015. It is particularly relevant to PG&E, after one of their gas pipes ruptured in 2010 and the resultant explosion killed eight people.

Curiosity’s compact spectrometer systems have already given rise to the testing of a new generation of compact, portable, multi-purpose spectrometers for use by geologists and researchers working in the field, and the development of this system with PG&E marks another significant step in NASA’s tradition of contributing back to technology, engineering, safety, etc., here on Earth.

NASA 3D Printing Contest for Students

3D printing has the potential to revolutionise many areas of life and business – both on Earth and in space. Earlier in 2014, for example, British Aerospace has received European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Form 1 certification approval to use a 3D printed part in one of their aeroplanes, and the European Space Agency (ESA) is investigating the use of 3D printing methods for space applications.

NASA, in partnership with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Foundation has now opted to launch a competition for US school and college students, to design and submit a digital 3-D model of a tool that they think astronauts will need in space.

Introducing the competition in a video (below), NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock says, “As you know, we don’t have overnight shipping up in space, so when we really need something, we have to wait. To be able to make parts on demand will forever change that for us.”

The competition, launched in late September, has a closing date of December 15th, 2014. Two grand prizes are on offer: the winner of the 5-12 year age group will get a 3-D printer for his or her school, while the winner in the 13-19 age range will receive a trip to NASA’s Payload Operations in Huntsville, Alabama, where the student will watch his or her object manufactured on the International Space Station.The winners will be announced in January 2015, and full details for entry can be found on the Future Engineers website.

Orion’s Launcher on the Pad

Also on Wednesday October 3rd, the Delta IV launch vehicle which will be used in the first test flight of Orion, NASA’s next generation crewed space vehicle, was rolled-out to its launch pad – eight weeks ahead of the planned launch date of December 4th.

Unlike the huge Saturn V rocket used to fly men to the Moon, the Delta vehicle is assembled horizontally, and is delivered to the launch pad in that manner, prior to being raised into place ready for the on-pad integration of its payload.

This is a relatively early roll-out for a Delta facing a launch, as NASA’s launch contractor, United Launch Alliance, confirmed. However, given this December 4th launch will mark the first flight of the Orion vehicle and will be the first time the Delta system has been used in a non-military launch, additional time is being allowed for integrating Orion with the launcher.

Orion itself has yet to arrive at the launch pad, as it is still undergoing integration with its Launch Abort System.

NASA Faces Challenge

In my last space update, I reported on NASA’s decision to select the Dragon v2 and CST-100 from SpaceX and Boeing respectively, for transporting crew to and from the International Space Station starting in 2017. However, on September 26th, Sierra Nevada Corporation lodged an official protest at the decision with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). The company behind Dream Chaser, the third remaining contender for NASA’s ISS contract, was forced to lay-off 100 personnel from the project following the NASA decision, although they are still actively pursuing options for developing the vehicle for use in the commercial sector.

Dream Chaser was the only vehicle contending for the NASA contract which is not a capsule design, but instead uses a lifting body approach (where the shape of the vehicle generates lift rather than the wing surfaces).  Vehicles using the technique were used to help in developing America’s space shuttle.

The Dream chaser alongside NASA's space shuttle Atlantis
The Dream Chaser flight research test article alongside NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis

Sierra Nevada’s objection is focused on the decision to use the Boeing system. In particular, the company point-out that Dream Chaser has to date received far less in government funding than the Boeing system, but shares equal technical proficiency. Had it received approval by NASA, it would likely have cost the US taxpayer some US$900 million less than the US$4.2 billion awarded to Boeing.

As a result of the protest, NASA has ordered a stop to any work under the contracts, halting publicly funded development of CST-100 and the Dragon v2 until the situation is resolved. however, it is unclear whether SpaceX and Boeing are prevented from continuing to fund the projects out of their own pockets until the matter is resolved. The GOA has until January 5th, 2015 to respond to the challenge. If it is upheld, then NASA will likely need to revise its decision, or re-compete the contract.

In the meantime, and hedging its bets, Sierra Nevada have also announced that a scaled-down version of Dream Chaser, capable of carrying a crew of three, rather than the seven required until the NASA ISS contact, could be carried aloft and launched by the Stratolaunch system backed by billionaire Paul Allen (of Microsoft fame). Stratolaunch is currently building what will be the world’s biggest aeroplane designed to carry crewed and uncrewed launch vehicles to altitude, prior to releasing them for their ascent to orbit.

All images and videos, courtesy of NASA.