The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space is increasingly green-lighting research projects for the International Space Station.

The crystals on the left were grown in microgravity. Those on the right formed on Earth.  (NASA)

Get ready for the rodents in outer space to outnumber the humans. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space is increasingly green-lighting research projects for the International Space Station.

The organization expects that the unique conditions of outer space could lead to research breakthroughs.

“We believe there are scientific projects that people haven’t even thought about taking gravity out of the equation, and if they realize how easy it is and how accessible it is to get to the space station they’d be all over it,” said Greg Johnson, the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

The organization approved 28 projects in 2013 and expects to launch more this year. In 2011 it began managing the U.S. lab on the International Space Station for NASA.

“There are things we can learn about the planet from 250 miles we frankly just can’t learn from here,” Johnson said. “We can learn about algal blooms in oceans. We can better understand patterns in the atmosphere and how they interface with land masses and water masses.”

In zero gravity, human and animal bones degenerate, opening a door for studying osteoporosis. Prolia, a drug designed to treat postmenopausal osteoporosis, was developed using research on lab rats that were tested on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2001.

One of the current experiments taking place on the International Space Station addresses Huntington’s disease, in which proteins clump up in a patient’s brain. The surface of the proteins mutate, making it hard for researchers to analyze them. Without an accurate depiction of the protein, scientists can’t design a drug to latch onto the surface and serve as a meaningful treatment for Huntington’s disease.

Gwen Owens, a Ph.D candidate at UCLA-Caltech, is studying the Huntington’s disease protein in crystal form. She heard an NPR segment about the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and recalled a researcher’s work using micogravity. Given that crystals grow better in space, she figured it was worth pursuing.

“The real bottleneck is getting the crystals to form,” Owens said. “Once we have the crystals, it’s not that easy, but it’s not that hard.” Owens will get a better understanding of just how valuable zero gravity proves to be when her lab gets results back in September.


Telescope Innovations Improve Speed, Accuracy of Eye Surgery

NASA Technology

Scanning Shack Hartmann System
An advanced Scanning Shack Hartmann System measures the mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to create a detailed map for the next step in making the mirrors.
Image courtesy of Abbott Medical Optics Inc.

One of the main components of NASA’s vision for the future of space exploration will actually have a keen eye for the past. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018, will have spectacular sight—after it reaches orbit, one of its main goals is to observe the first galaxies that formed in the early universe.

“JWST offers new capabilities in the infrared well beyond what we can see from current telescopes, either on the ground or in space. It will let us explore the early universe, extrasolar planets, and really, all branches of astrophysics,” says Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for the JWST at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Building such a keen space telescope is an astronomic task. Because JWST will gaze over such incredible distances, it requires very large mirrors. In fact, the primary mirror will be more than two stories in diameter and consists of 18 separate segments. Each segment must be perfectly smooth, flat, and scratch-free in order to deliver a view 13 billion light years away.

Construction of the 18 mirror segments involved measuring, grinding, polishing, and testing—and more measuring, grinding, polishing, and testing—and more measuring, grinding, polishing, and testing (you get the idea). One of the most time consuming steps of the mirror development process—the grinding phase—can take years.

Technology Transfer

To polish the JWST’s mirror segments, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center contracted with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and Ball Aerospace, which contracted with L3 Communications’ Tinsley Facility in Richmond, California. A subcontractor to L3 at the time, WaveFront Sciences of Albuquerque, New Mexico, worked at the facility to assist with polishing by developing a system for metrology (measurement) testing of the large JWST mirrors after grinding. Called the infrared Scanning Shack Hartmann System, the technology enabled testing of the mirror’s surface immediately after grinding and completely eliminated one of the polishing steps in the process.

“It was a key advantage,” says Dan Neal, cofounder of WaveFront Sciences. “They could take the mirror off grinding and in one day, get a test back with a detailed map on how to do the next step of the grinding.”

Neal explains how the new metrology testing stations measured just a small part of the mirror to create an image of the entire surface. “We didn’t have to build giant reference mirrors. Traditionally, the reference mirror has to be as big as the mirror you are going to test. It was very innovative,” he says.

For NASA, the system reduced the time it took to construct the high-quality primary mirror segments and also reduced the cost. “By measuring earlier, in the grinding phase, it allowed us to speed up the process and ensure the performance was what we wanted when we got to the final stages,” Feinberg says.

Now the innovation is enabling faster, more precise measurements of complex surfaces for researchers and doctors who measure a different kind of lens—the human eye.

“The testing systems developed for the JWST mirrors have allowed improvements in the machines for testing human eyes forLasik surgery,” says Neal. “We were trying to solve one problem for JWST, and the tool we developed turned out to have many applications.”


The work performed on the JWST spun off into one of WaveFront Science’s products called the Complete Ophthalmic Analysis System, or COAS. By incorporating the algorithms developed for JWST, COAS performed 21 times faster.

iDesign Advanced WaveScan Studio machine
A new laser vision product released in Europe can map the human eye more quickly and accurately for Lasik vision correction, thanks to the innovations made while constructing the JWST mirrors.
Image courtesy of Abbott Medical Optics Inc.

Designed for diagnosing eye conditions and providing a detailed map of the eye, COAS supports research in cataracts, keratoconus (an eye condition that causes reduced vision), and eye movement. “There are a number of researchers around the United States and the world using the product for vision research,” says Neal.

In 2007, Advanced Medical Optics acquired WaveFront Sciences—and with it, the improved COAS technology. Two years later, Advanced Medical Optics was acquired by Abbott Laboratories and renamed Abbott Medical Optics. Today, Abbott Medical Optics is a leading company of vision correction technology based in Santa Ana, California. The company recently released a new product in Europe, based in part on COAS, called the iDesign Advanced WaveScan Studio. The technology is a main component of Abbott’s iLASIK laser vision correction solution.

A doctor uses the iDesign Advanced WaveScan Studio to measure a patient’s eye and then create a map of the Lasik treatment that is needed for correction. The map is transferred to a laser, which performs the custom treatment. “It’s a stand-alone piece of equipment, but works in conjunction with a laser. The software transfers directly to the laser,” says Neal, who is now a research fellow at Abbott Medical Optics.

According to the company, the technology is quick and accurate. It works within 3 seconds to obtain four different measurements, and provides accuracy in measuring distorted surfaces—for conditions like nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, and others. “The techniques for JWST needed to be able to measure a wide variation of shapes, and those are the same techniques we’ve used in designing instruments to measure the eye,” says Neal.

JWST also prepared Abbott Medical Optics for the large-format cameras that are now available in the industry, says Neal. “We are using them in our new products. When an eye doctor makes a measurement on his machine, he doesn’t want to wait 2 minutes for it to be complete. He wants to see it instantly. That’s taking advantage of those faster and better algorithms,” he says.

“Often, the government has the ability to fund big vision things and along the way, some of the technology pieces turn out to be important across the board in many different ways.”

COAS™ is a trademark of WaveFront Sciences.


Polymers Advance Heat Management Materials for Vehicles

NASA Technology

For 6 years prior to the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program, the shuttles carried an onboard repair kit with a tool for emergency use: two tubes of NOAX, or “good goo,” as some people called it. NOAX flew on all 22 flights following the Columbia accident, and was designed to repair damage that occurred on the exterior of the shuttle.

Bill McMahon, a structural materials engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center says NASA needed a solution for the widest range of possible damage to the shuttle’s exterior thermal protection system. “NASA looked at several options in early 2004 and decided on a sealant. Ultimately, NOAX performed the best and was selected,” he says.

To prove NOAX would work effectively required hundreds of samples manufactured at Marshall and Johnson—and a concerted effort from various NASA field centers. Johnson Space Center provided programmatic leadership, testing, tools, and crew training; Glenn Research Center provided materials analysis; Langley Research Center provided test support and led an effort to perform large patch repairs; Ames Research Center provided additional testing; and Marshall provided further testing and the site of NOAX manufacturing.

Although the sealant never had to be used in an emergency situation, it was tested by astronauts on samples of reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) during two shuttle missions. (RCC is the thermal material on areas of the shuttle that experience the most heat, such as the nose cone and wing leading edges.) The material handled well on orbit, and tests showed the NOAX patch held up well on RCC.

Technology Transfer

While NASA funded the full-scale development of NOAX, the sealant was actually invented by Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK). Under NASA funding, ATK contracted with Starfire Systems Inc., a manufacturer of polymer-to-ceramic technology based in Schenectady, New York, to supply the unique polymer material that was incorporated into NOAX.

Called SMP-10, Starfire’s polymer was designed to convert into a ceramic at high temperatures. McMahon describes, “As it heated above 1,500 °F it would start to convert over to ceramic. As a ceramic, NOAX could take much higher temperatures, allowing it to seal during the shuttle’s re-entry.”

According to Darren Welson, director of technology at Starfire, SMP-10 was formulated and processed for incorporation into NOAX, which laid the groundwork for Starfire to achieve a repeatable process for a reliable product. “Thanks to our experience working with ATK and NASA, we were able to demonstrate and test SMP-10 for aerospace, military, and commercial applications. The applications have grown and matured as a result of the ATK and NASA work,” he says.


In looking for ways to make SMP-10 less expensive for commercial use, Starfire developed StarPCS for high temperature applications on Earth. Today, the company manufactures a family of StarPCS products for lightweight components that need to withstand extreme temperatures. “They share a common chemistry but are different based on the application,” says Welson.

The StarPCS family of products provides benefits for heat management in the military, aerospace, aviation, and automotive markets. According to the company, customers in general aviation are experimenting with StarPCS for various aircraft components.

Al Cornell, director of sales and business development at Starfire, says domestic and foreign auto manufacturers are testing StarPCS for passenger vehicles. “It can be run hotter and require less cooling than metallic counterparts. It also offers weight-saving and performance handling benefits,” he says.

Formula 1 race car
Starfire Systems Inc. manufactured a unique polymer for the sealant for the Space Shuttle. A formula incorporating the polymer is now being used in test platforms for a new exhaust management design for Formula 1 race cars.

StarPCS formulas are also being tested for heat shields in vehicles with extremely hot engines. According to the company, the material has already been qualified and is going forward for implementation for this application. “The thermal properties allow the material to be a very good insulator in race cars,” finds Cornell. “In this particular case, the composite can protect the passenger from the hot engine components.”

Specifically, Cornell says StarPCS is being used in the test platforms for Formula 1 race cars. The teams are currently looking for a new exhaust management design to divert exhaust by routing it through body panels. It would use the aerodynamic suction to pull the gases out of the engine faster and allow a 1–3 percent increase in horsepower. The problem, says Cornell, is that manufacturers have not found a way to do it without burning the carbon fiber body of the vehicle. “It’s a technology race for all the teams to get the same technology in their cars to have the same performance,” he says. “StarPCS could potentially be used for such an application.”

Auto manufacturers outside of racing are also looking for alternative materials for heat management in turbo chargers. Cornell says manufacturers want to make exhaust pipes out of something other than metal so the pipe can withstand higher temperatures. “The higher the temperature bleed, the more efficient the turbo charger,” he says. “This is the same idea as the Formula 1 application to manage an incredible amount of heat.”

Even though NASA no longer uses the innovative solution for space shuttle repairs, the Agency is incorporating SMP-10 into some of the safety components for Orion, NASA’s next multi-purpose crew vehicle.