Web Solutions Inspire Cloud Computing Software

NASA Technology

In 2008, a NASA effort to standardize its websites inspired a breakthrough in cloud computing technology. The innovation has spurred the growth of an entire industry in open source cloud services that has already attracted millions in investment and is currently generating hundreds of millions in revenue.

William Eshagh was part of the project in the early days, when it was known as NASA.net. “The feeling was that there was a proliferation of NASA websites and approaches to building them. Everything looked different, and it was all managed differently—it was a fragmented landscape.”

altNASA.net aimed to resolve this problem by providing a standard set of tools and methods for web developers. The developers, in turn, would provide design, code, and functionality for their project while adopting and incorporating NASA’s standardized approach. Says Eshagh, “The basic idea was that the web developer would write their code and upload it to the website, and the website would take care of everything else.”

altEven though the project was relatively narrow in its focus, the developers soon realized that they would need bigger, more foundational tools to accomplish the job. “We were trying to create a ‘platform layer,’ which is the concept of giving your code over to the service. But in order to build that, we actually needed to go a step deeper,” says Eshagh.

That next step was to create an “infrastructure service.” Whereas NASA.net was a platform for dealing with one type of application, an infrastructure service is a more general tool with a simpler purpose: to provide access to computing power. While such computing power could be used to run a service like NASA.net, it could also be used for other applications.

Put another way, what the team came to realize was that they needed to create a cloud computing service. Cloud computing is the delivery of software, processing power, and storage over the Internet. Whether these resources are as ordinary as a library of music files or as complex as a network of supercomputers, cloud computing enables an end user to control them remotely and simply. “The idea is to be able to log on to the service and say ‘I want 10 computers,’ and within a minute, I can start using those computers for any purpose whatsoever,” says Eshagh.

As the scope of the project expanded, NASA.net came to be known as Nebula. Much more than setting standards for Agency web developers, Nebula was intended to provide NASA developers, researchers, and scientists with a wide range of services for accessing and managing the large quantities of data the Agency accumulates every day. This was an enormous undertaking that only a high-powered cloud computing platform could provide.

Raymond O’Brien, former program manager of Nebula, says the project was in some ways ahead of its time. “Back in 2008 and 2009, people were still trying to figure out what ‘cloud’ meant. While lots of people were calling themselves ‘cloud enabled’ or ‘cloud ready,’ there were few real commercial offerings. With so little clarity on the issue, there was an opportunity for us to help fill that vacuum.”

altAs the team built Nebula, one of the most pressing questions they faced was that of open source development, or the practice of building software in full view of the public over the Internet.

On the one hand, proprietary code might have helped the project overcome early hurdles, as commercial software can offer off-the-shelf solutions that speed up development by solving common problems. Proprietary software is sometimes so useful and convenient that the Nebula team wasn’t even sure that they could create the product without relying on closed source solutions at some point.

On the other hand, open source development would facilitate a collaborative environment without borders—literally anyone with the know-how and interest could access the code and improve on it. Because Nebula had evolved into a project that was addressing very general, widespread needs—not just NASA-wide, but potentially worldwide—the possibility of avoiding restrictive licensing agreements by going open source was very attractive.

O’Brien says that broad appeal was an important part of Nebula’s identity. “From the beginning, we wanted this project to involve a very large community—private enterprises, academic institutions, research labs—that would take Nebula and bring it to the next level. It was a dream, a vision. It was that way from the start.”

Despite uncertainties, the development team decided to make Nebula purely open source. Eshagh says the real test for that philosophy came when those constraints were stretched to their limits. “Eventually, we determined that existing open source tools did not fully address Nebula’s requirements,” he says. “But instead of turning to proprietary tools, we decided to write our own.”

The problem was with a component of the software called the cloud controller, or the tool that can turn a single server or pool of servers into many virtual servers, which can then be provisioned remotely using software. In effect, the controller gives an end user access in principle to as much or as little computing power and storage as is needed. Existing tools were either written in the wrong programming language or under the wrong software license.

Within a matter of days, the Nebula team had built a new cloud controller from scratch, in Python (their preferred programming language for the controller), and under an open source license. When the team announced this breakthrough on its blog, they immediately began attracting attention from some of the biggest players in the industry. “We believed we were addressing a general problem that would have broad interest,” says Eshagh. “As it turns out, that prediction couldn’t have been more accurate.”

Technology Transfer

Rackspace Inc., of San Antonio, Texas, was one of the companies most interested in the technology. Rackspace runs the second largest public cloud in the world and was at the time offering computing and storage services using software they had created in-house. Jim Curry, general manager of Rackspace Cloud Builders, says they faced hurdles similar to those NASA faced in building a private cloud. “We tried to use available technology,” he says, “but it couldn’t scale up to meet our needs.”

The engineers at Rackspace wrote their own code for a number of years, but Curry says they didn’t see it as a sustainable activity. “We’re a hosting company—people come to us when they want to run standard server environments with a high level of hosting support that we can offer them. Writing proprietary code for unique technologies is not something we wanted to be doing long-term.”

The developers at Rackspace were fans of open source development and had been looking into open source solutions right at the time the Nebula team announced its new cloud controller. “Just weeks before we were going to announce our own open source project, we saw that what NASA had released looked very similar to what we were trying to do.” Curry reached out to the Nebula team, and within a week the two development teams met and agreed that it made sense to collaborate on the project going forward.

Each of the teams brought something to the table, says Curry. “The nice thing about it was that we were more advanced than NASA in some areas and vice versa, and we each complemented the other very well. For example, NASA was further along with their cloud controller, whereas we were further along on the storage side of things.”

The next step was for each organization to make its code open source so the two teams could launch the project as an independent, open entity. Jim Curry says the team at Rackspace was stunned by the speed at which NASA moved through the process. “Within a period of 30–45 days, NASA completed the process of getting the agreements to have this stuff done. From my perspective, they moved as fast as any company I’ve ever worked with, and it was really impressive to watch.”

The OpenStack project, the successor to Nebula with development from Rackspace, was announced in July 2010. As open source software, OpenStack has attracted a very broad community: nearly 2,500 independent developers and 150 companies are a part of it—including such giants as AT&T, HP, Cisco, Dell, and Intel. Semi-annual developers’ conferences, where members of the development community meet to exchange ideas and explore new directions for the software, now attract over 1,000 participants from about two dozen different countries.


Because OpenStack is free, companies who use it to deploy servers do not need to pay licensing fees—fees that can easily total thousands of dollars per server per year. With the number of companies that have already adopted OpenStack, the software has potentially saved millions of dollars in server costs.

“Before OpenStack,” says Curry, “your only option was to pay someone money to solve the problem that OpenStack is addressing today. For people who want it as a solution, who like the idea of consuming open source, they now have an alternative to proprietary options.”

Not only is OpenStack saving money; it is also generating jobs and revenue at a remarkable pace. Curry says that dozens of Rackspace’s 80 cloud engineering jobs are directly attributable to OpenStack, and that the technology has created hundreds of jobs throughout the industry. “Right now, trying to find someone with OpenStack experience, especially in San Francisco, is nearly impossible, because demand is so high.”

The technology is currently generating hundreds of millions in revenue: Rackspace’s public cloud alone— which largely relies on OpenStack—currently takes in $150 million a year. Curry, Eshagh, and O’Brien all predict that the software will be its own billion-dollar industry within a few years.

Because OpenStack is open source, and is modified and improved by the people who use it, it is more likely to remain a cutting-edge solution for cloud computing needs. Says Eshagh, “We are starting to see the heavyweights in the industry adding services on top of OpenStack—which they can do because they have a common framework to build from. That means we’ll see even more services and products being created.”

In 2012, Rackspace took steps to secure OpenStack’s future as a free and open source project: the company began the process of spinning off the platform into its own nonprofit organization. By separating itself from any one commercial interest, Curry says, the project will be better positioned to continue doing what its founders hoped it would.

O’Brien maintains that OpenStack’s potential is far from being realized. “It’s hard to characterize in advance. If you had asked an expert about Linux years ago, who could have predicted that it would be in nearly everything, as it is today? It’s in phones and mobile devices. It’s in 75 percent of deployed servers. It’s even used to support space missions. OpenStack has a chance to hit something similar to that in cloud computing.”

Curry agrees: “In the future, you can envision almost all computing being done in the cloud, much of which could be powered by OpenStack. I think that NASA will need to receive significant credit for that in the history books. What we’ve been able to do is unbelievable— especially when you remember that it all started in a NASA lab.”


Mars Cameras Make Panoramic Photography a Snap


Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The Gigapan robotic platform holds a digital camera.
The Gigapan robotic platform now enables photographers on Earth to capture and create super-sized digital panoramas.

If you wish to explore a Martian landscape without leaving your armchair, a few simple clicks around the NASA Web site will lead you to panoramic photographs taken from the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Many of the technologies that enable this spectacular Mars photography have also inspired advancements in photography here on Earth, including the panoramic camera (Pancam) and its housing assembly, designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cornell University for the Mars missions. Mounted atop each rover, the Pancam mast assembly (PMA) can tilt a full 180 degrees and swivel 360 degrees, allowing for a complete, highly detailed view of the Martian landscape.

The rover Pancams take small, 1 megapixel (1 million pixel) digital photographs, which are stitched together into large panoramas that sometimes measure 4 by 24 megapixels. The Pancam software performs some image correction and stitching after the photographs are transmitted back to Earth. Different lens filters and a spectrometer also assist scientists in their analyses of infrared radiation from the objects in the photographs. These photographs from Mars spurred developers to begin thinking in terms of larger and higher quality images: super-sized digital pictures, or gigapixels, which are images composed of 1 billion or more pixels.

Gigapixel images are more than 200 times the size captured by today’s standard 4 megapixel digital camera. Although originally created for the Mars missions, the detail provided by these large photographs allows for many purposes, not all of which are limited to extraterrestrial photography.


The technology behind the Mars rover PMAs inspired Randy Sargent at Ames Research Center and Illah Nourbakhsh at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to look at ways consumers might be able to use similar technology for more “down-to-Earth” photography and virtual exploration.

In 2005, Sargent and Nourbakhsh created the Global Connection Project, a collaboration of scientists from CMU, Google Inc., and the National Geographic Society, whose vision is to encourage better understanding of the Earth’s cultures through images. This vision inspired the development of their Gigapan products.

After seeing what the Pancams and PMAs could do, Sargent created a prototype for a consumer-version of a robotic camera platform. He worked with Rich LeGrand of Charmed Labs LLC, in Austin, Texas, to design and manufacture the Gigapan robotic platform for standard digital cameras.

Product Outcome

The Gigapan robotic platform is, in essence, an intelligent tripod that enables an amateur photographer to set up detailed shots with ease. A user sets the upper-left and lower-right corners of the panorama, and the Gigapan simply will capture as many images as the user or scene requires. With this level of automation, a 500-picture panorama is no more complicated than a 4-picture panorama; only the camera’s memory limits the size of the panorama.

The Global Connection Project also created two other Gigapan products: a Gigapan Web site and panorama stitching software born from the Ames Vision Workbench, an image processing and computer vision library developed by the Autonomous Systems and Robotics Area in the Intelligent Systems Division.

A high-resolution composite photograph shows a monk atop a temple in Nepal, the temple at a distance, and a restaurant behind the temple.
Gigapan allows a photographer to capture extremely high-resolution panoramas, which a user can explore in depth. In this wide view of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, it is possible to zoom all the way into the smallest, barely visible points in the picture, such as the monk standing on the roof of the temple or the sign above the Tibet Kitchen Restaurant and Bar.
Gigapan panoramic image courtesy of Jessee Mayfield.

The robotic platform works with the stitching software by precisely manipulating and aligning each shot ahead of time. The Gigapan software complements the robotic platform by arranging the parts of the panorama (potentially hundreds of individual photographs) into a grid where they are stitched together into a single, very large Gigapan image.

The Global Connection Project won a 2006 “Economic Development Award” from the Tech Museum Awards for its work in creating photographic overlays for Google Earth of areas affected by natural disasters. Government workers and concerned citizens used the images on Google Earth to see which areas needed help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

On the Gigapan Web site, a user can display a wide bird’s eye panorama and can then zoom in with impressive bug’s eye high-quality detail. On first impression, a panoramic photograph on Gigapan’s site might seem to be simply a wide-angle cityscape of a temple in Kathmandu. With each successive click, however, the user can zoom deeper and deeper into the photo, revealing more and more clear details: a monk hanging prayer flags on the roof of the temple and the Tibet Kitchen Restaurant and Bar a few blocks behind the temple, with a sign extolling passersby to taste their gourmet food.

As part of a continuing effort to connect people and cultures, the Global Connection Project encourages all users to upload their own panoramas from around the world on the Gigapan site. Users can explore such varied landscapes as a temple in Nepal, the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, a market in Guatemala, or the Boston skyline from the Charles River. Because of the much greater number of pixels, the resolution is unprecedented; the Gigapan software and robotic platforms can theoretically produce prints on 40-foot-wide paper without any loss in quality.

Whether or not photographers use the Gigapan mounts and software, anyone can upload their panoramas to the Gigapan Web site. Many users of Gigapan have uploaded standard panorama photographs, as well (although the site suggests photographs be at least 50 megabytes). This is just fine with the Gigapan and the Global Connection Project coordinators, whose aim is simply to encourage exploration and understanding of the various cultures in our world.

The Fine Family Foundation is sponsoring work with the Global Connection Project to enable botanists, geologists, archeologists, and other scientists around the world to document different aspects of the Earth’s cultures and ecosystems using Gigapan technology. Scientists are using Gigapan to document life in the upper redwood forest canopy in California, volcanoes in Hawaii, and glaciers in Norway.

There are also educational uses for the Gigapan: The Pennsylvania Board of Tourism uses Gigapan for Web site visitors wanting to explore Civil War sites virtually. Also, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Global Connection Project has distributed Gigapan to students in Pittsburgh, South Africa, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, encouraging them to photograph their local culture and share those panoramas with the world. “The hope is that students will be able to have deeper connections to other cultures,” said Sargent.

A time-lapse Gigapan robotic mount is now in development, and a professional unit for larger SLR-style cameras may be released before the end of 2008.

Gigapan is a trademark of Carnegie Mellon University.

Boosting NASA’s Budget Will Help Fix Economy: Neil deGrasse Tyson



 Reinvigorating space exploration in the United States will require not only boosting NASA’s budget but also getting the public to understand how pushing the boundaries of the space frontier benefits the country’s innovation, culture and economy, said renowned astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“Space is a $300 billion industry worldwide,” Tyson said. “NASA is a tiny percent of that. [But] that little bit is what inspires dreams.”

He spoke about how space has influenced culture — ranging from how the fins on early rockets inspired fins on automobiles in the 1950s, to how the Apollo 8 mission’s iconic picture taken in 1968 of Earth rising above the horizon of the moon led to a greater appreciation for our planet and the need to protect it. Yet, many people outside the space community see itas a special interest group, Tyson said.

“Innovation drives economy,” he said. “It’s especially been true since the Industrial Revolution.”

Tyson advocated doubling NASA’s budget — which President Barack Obama set at $17.7 billion in his 2013 federal budget request — and then laid out a different approach to space exploration that he called somewhat “unorthodox.” Rather than focusing on one destination at a time, Tyson promoted building a core fleet of launch vehicles that can be customized for a variety of missions and for a range of purposes.

“We’re kind of doing that now, but let’s do that as the focus,” Tyson said. “One configuration will get you to the moon. Another will get you to a Lagrangian point. Another will get you to Mars.”

Having an available suite of launch vehicles will open up access to space for a wider range of purposes, which will, in turn, benefit the country’s economy and innovation.

Tyson compared it with the country’s system of interstates, which helped connect cities across the country and made travel more efficient.

“When Eisenhower came back from Europe after he saw the [German] autobahn, and how it survived heavy climactic variation and troop maneuvers, he said, ‘I want some of that in my country,'” Tyson explained. “So he gets everyone to agree to build the interstate system. Did he say, ‘you know, I just want to build it from New York to L.A., because that’s where you should go?’ No. The interstate system connects everybody in whatever way you want. That’s how you grow a system.”

Furthermore, this type of capability can be used for a myriad of purposes, including military endeavors, science missions, commercial expeditions and space tourism.

“Whatever the needs or urges — be they geopolitical, military, economic — space becomes that frontier,” Tyson said. “Not only do you innovate, these innovations make headlines. Those headlines work their way down the educational pipeline. Everybody in school knows about it. You don’t have to set up a program to convince people that being an engineer is cool. They’ll know it just by the cultural presence of those activities. You do that, and it’ll jump-start our dreams.”


Space Age Swimsuit Reduces Drag, Breaks Records

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

An athlete swims toward the camera.
NASA helped Speedo reduce viscous drag in the new LZR Racer by performing surface drag testing and applying expertise in the area of fluid dynamics.

A space shuttle and a competitive swimmer have a lot more in common than people might realize: Among other forces, both have to contend with the slowing influence of drag. NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate focuses primarily on improving flight efficiency and generally on fluid dynamics, especially the forces of pressure and viscous drag, which are the same for bodies moving through air as for bodies moving through water. Viscous drag is the force of friction that slows down a moving object through a substance, like air or water.

NASA uses wind tunnels for fluid dynamics research, studying the forces of friction in gasses and liquids. Pressure forces, according to Langley Research Center’s Stephen Wilkinson, “dictate the optimal shape and performance of an airplane or other aero/hydro-dynamic body.” In both high-speed flight and swimming, says Wilkinson, a thin boundary layer of reduced velocity fluid surrounds the moving body; this layer is about 2 centimeters thick for a swimmer.


Key areas of compression in the LZR Racer swimsuit
The LZR Racer provides extra compression in key areas to help a swimmer use less energy to swim more quickly.

In spite of some initial skepticism, Los Angeles-based SpeedoUSA asked NASA to help design a swimsuit with reduced drag, shortly after the 2004 Olympics. According to Stuart Isaac, senior vice president of Team Sales and Sports Marketing, “People would look at us and say ‘this isn’t rocket science’ and we began to think, ‘well, actually, maybe it is.’” While most people would not associate space travel with swimwear, rocket science is exactly what SpeedoUSA decided to try. The manufacturer sought a partnership with NASA because of the Agency’s expertise in the field of fluid dynamics and in the area of combating drag.

A 2004 computational fluid dynamics study conducted by Speedo’s Aqualab research and development unit determined that the viscous drag on a swimmer is about 25 percent of the total retarding force. In competitive swimming, where every hundredth of a second counts, the best possible reduction in drag is crucially important. Researchers began flat plate testing of fabrics, using a small wind tunnel developed for earlier research on low-speed viscous drag reduction, and Wilkinson collaborated over the next few years with Speedo’s Aqualab to design what Speedo now considers the most efficient swimsuit yet: the LZR Racer. Surface drag testing was performed with the help of Langley, and additional water flume testing and computational fluid dynamics were performed with guidance from the University of Otago (New Zealand) and ANSYS Inc., a computer-aided engineering firm.

“Speedo had the materials in mind [for the LZR Racer],” explains Isaac, “but we did not know how they would perform in surface friction drag testing, which is where we enlisted the help of NASA.” The manufacturer says the fabric, which Speedo calls LZR Pulse, is not only efficient at reducing drag, but it also repels water and is extremely lightweight. Speedo tested about 100 materials and material coatings before settling on LZR Pulse.

NASA and Speedo performed tests on traditionally sewn seams, ultrasonically welded seams, and the fabric alone, which gave Speedo a baseline for reducing drag caused by seams and helped them identify problem areas. NASA wind tunnel results helped Speedo “create a bonding system that eliminates seams and reduces drag,” according to Isaac. The Speedo LZR Racer is the first fully bonded, full-body swimsuit with ultrasonically welded seams. Instead of sewing overlapping pieces of fabric together, Speedo actually fused the edges ultrasonically, reducing drag by 6 percent. “The ultrasonically welded seams have just slightly more drag than the fabric alone,” Isaac explains. NASA results also showed that a low-profile zipper ultrasonically bonded (not sewn) into the fabric and hidden inside the suit generated 8 percent less drag in wind tunnel tests than a standard zipper. Low-profile seams and zippers were a crucial component in the LZR Racer because the suit consists of multiple connecting fabric pieces—instead of just a few sewn pieces such as found in traditional suits—that provide extra compression for maximum efficiency.

Product Outcome

LZR Racer swimsuit covering the torso and legs of a swimmer

The LZR Racer reduces skin friction drag by covering more skin than traditional swimsuits. Multiple pieces of the water-resistant and extremely lightweight LZR Pulse fabric connect at ultrasonically welded seams and incorporate extremely low-profile zippers to keep viscous drag to a minimum. 

The LZR Racer reduces skin friction drag 24 percent more than the Fastskin, the previous Speedo racing suit fabric; and according to the manufacturer, the LZR Racer uses a Hydro Form Compression System to grip the body like a corset. Speedo experts say this compression helps the swimmers maintain the best form possible and enables them to swim longer and faster since they are using less energy to maintain form. The compression alone improves efficiency up to 5 percent, according to the manufacturer.

Olympic swimmer Katie Hoff, one of the American athletes wearing the suit in 2008 competitions, said that the tight suit helps a swimmer move more quickly through the water, because it “compresses [the] whole body so that [it’s] really streamlined.” Athletes from the French, Australian, and British Olympic teams all participated in testing the new Speedo racing suits.

Similar in style to a wetsuit, the LZR Racer can cover all or part of the legs, depending on personal preference and event. A swimmer can choose a full-body suit that covers the entire torso and extends to the ankles, or can opt for a suit with shorter legs above the knees. The more skin the LZR Racer covers, the more potential it has to reduce skin friction drag. The research seems to have paid off; in March 2008, athletes wearing the LZR Racer broke 13 world records.

Speedo®, LZR Pulse®, LZR Racer®, and FastSkin® are registered trademarks of Speedo Holdings B.V.


NASA operating plan makes final adjustments for fiscal year 2014

NASA has released a summary of its fiscal year 2014 operating plan, which details any changes to spending for programs the agency has made (with the approval of Congress) from the final FY14 appropriations bill. As the table below shows, the changes are very minor; last year, NASA made bigger changes to adjust spending for agency priorities after the across-the-board cuts of sequestration went into effect. (The operating plan also provides a breakout of spending within Space Operations, which was omitted from the omnibus spending bill.)

All figures in Billions

Account FY14 Omnibus FY14 Ops Plan Difference
SCIENCE $5,151.20 $5,148.20 ($3.00)
– Earth Science $1,826.00 $1,824.90 ($1.10)
– Planetary Science $1,345.00 $1,343.40 ($1.60)
– Astrophysics $668.00 $678.30 $10.30
– JWST $658.20 $658.20 $0.00
– Heliophysics $654.00 $643.30 ($10.70)
SPACE TECHNOLOGY $576.00 $576.00 $0.00
AERONAUTICS $566.00 $566.00 $0.00
EXPLORATION SYSTEMS $4,113.20 $4,113.20 $0.00
– SLS/Orion $3,115.20 $3,115.20 $0.00
– Commercial Spaceflight $696.00 $696.00 $0.00
– Exploration R&D $302.0 $302.00 $0.00
SPACE OPERATIONS $3,778.00 $3,776.40 ($1.60)
– ISS n/a $2,964.10 NA
– Space and Flight Support n/a $812.30 NA
EDUCATION $116.60 $116.60 $0.00
CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT $2,793.00 $2,793.00 $0.00
CONSTRUCTION $515.00 $519.60 $4.60
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.50 $37.50 $0.00
TOTAL $17,646.50 $17,646.50 ($3.10)

As SpacePolicyOnline.com (who requested the FY14 operating plan from NASA) notes, the operating plan still fully funds the SOFIA airborne observatory even though NASA is seeking to end funding for it in its FY15 budget proposal. However, there’s no guarantee that all of this funding would be used for operations of SOFIA: NASA officials warned in March that the $12 million proposed for FY15 might not be sufficient to cover the costs of mothballing the 747 aircraft

Circulation-Enhancing Device Improves CPR

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Ever stand up too quickly from a sitting or lying position and feel dizzy or disoriented for a brief moment? The downward push of Earth’s gravity naturally causes blood to settle in the lower areas of the human body, and occasionally, with a quick movement—such as rising swiftly from a chair—the body is not able to adjust fast enough to deliver an adequate supply of blood to the upper parts of the body and the brain. This sudden, temporary drop in blood pressure is what causes brief feelings of lightheadedness upon standing. In essence, when the heart pumps blood to different parts of the body, it is working against the physical phenomenon of gravity in its efforts to send blood up to the brain.

ResQPOD circulation-enhancing device
The ResQPOD is an impedance threshold device used to enhance circulation during CPR. It could be used to increase circulation for astronauts as their bodies initially adjust to a return to gravity from the weightlessness of space.

In more cases than not, the body is able to make the necessary adjustments to ensure proper blood flow and pressure to the brain; but when the disorientation lasts a long time and/or become chronic, individuals may have a condition called orthostatic intolerance. According to the American Journal of Physiology–Heart and Circulatory Physiology, an estimated 500,000 Americans are affected by orthostatic intolerance. Symptoms range from occasional fainting, blurry vision, and pain or discomfort in the head and the neck, to tiredness, weakness, and a lack of concentration. Though research indicates that the condition is not life-threatening, it could impact the quality of life and contribute to falls that result in serious injuries.

The condition is a prominent concern for NASA, since astronauts have to readjust to the gravitational environment of Earth after spending days in the weightlessness of space. NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate has found that roughly 20 percent of astronauts coming off of short-duration space flights experience difficulty maintaining proper blood pressure when moving from lying down to either sitting or standing during the first few days back on Earth. The difficulties are even more severe for astronauts coming off of long-duration missions, according to the mission directorate, as 83 percent of these crewmembers experience some degree of the condition.

Cardiovascular experts at NASA have found that the blood that normally settles in the lower regions of the body is instead pulled to the upper body in the microgravity environment of space. Blood volume is subsequently reduced as some cardiovascular reflexes are no longer being used, and less blood flows to the legs. Additionally, the muscles weaken, especially in the lower portion of the body, because they are not working (contracting) as hard as they usually do. This is not so much a concern for the astronauts while they are in space, since the action of floating around takes the place of putting center-of-gravity pressure on their legs. (They do exercise strenuously while in microgravity, though, to keep their muscles and circulatory systems conditioned, thus preparing their bodies for the return to gravity as best they can.) When they return to Earth’s gravity, however, more blood returns to the legs. Since there is a lower volume of blood, the flow that is supposed to be traveling to the brain can be insufficient. That is when orthostatic intolerance can set in.

NASA has conducted and sponsored a wealth of studies to counter the effects of orthostatic intolerance, especially since the condition could prevent an astronaut from exiting a landed spacecraft in the event of an emergency. In one study conducted by Johnson Space Center’s Cardiovascular Laboratory, astronauts in orbit tested the efficacy of a drug called midodrine that has successfully reduced orthostatic intolerance in patients on Earth. The early results were promising, but further testing will be conducted by the laboratory before more conclusive results can be determined. In another study, the laboratory is using a controlled tilt test on Earth to replicate the body’s responses to a shift from reclining to sitting or standing.

At Ames Research Center, researchers are utilizing NASA’s 20-G artificial gravity centrifuge machine in a pilot study on cardiovascular responses and fluid shifts in the body. A separate Ames study is evaluating the possibility of expanding astronauts’ plasma volumes (the fluid part of the blood, minus the blood cells), as a preventative measure.

Patient receiving respiratory support
The ResQPOD increases circulation in states of low blood pressure. When used on patients in cardiac arrest, the ResQPOD harnesses the chest wall recoil after each compression to generate a small but critical vacuum within the chest. This vacuum enhances blood flow back to the heart and results in a marked increase in blood flow out of the heart with each subsequent chest compression.

In NASA-sponsored research at Vanderbilt University, researchers have successfully identified a genetic cause for orthostatic intolerance. The findings marked the first time a genetic defect had been linked to a disorder of the autonomic immune system, according to the discoverers, and could eventually lead to new drugs and treatments for the condition.

At Kennedy Space Center, a collaborative research effort with the U.S. Army and private industry has yielded an important application for a new, non-invasive medical device called ResQPOD that is now available for astronauts returning from space. In helping to reacquaint the astronauts with the feeling of gravity, ResQPOD quickly and effectively increases the circulation of blood flow to the brain. This device is also available to the public as a means to enhance circulation for breathing patients suffering from orthostatic intolerance and for non-breathing patients suffering cardiac arrest or other high-risk clinical conditions attributed to low blood pressure.


Advanced Circulatory Systems Inc., of Minneapolis, collaborated with Kennedy and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research for more than 5 years to develop ResQPOD. Don Doerr, an engineer at Kennedy, led the testing and development effort; Dr. Victor Convertino of the Institute of Surgical Research (and a former NASA scientist at Kennedy) also played an instrumental role in developing the technology.

Multiple clinical studies were conducted during the research effort, including six published studies. The published works demonstrate that ResQPOD offers a significant improvement in cardiac output and blood flow to the brain and in preventing shock in the event of considerable blood loss, when compared to conventional resuscitation. According to Advanced Circulatory Systems, data from the NASA studies played a major role in the company obtaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration 501K clearance for the device.

Dr. Keith Lurie, chief medical officer at Advanced Circulatory Systems and a primary member of the collaborative research effort, said, “The three-way partnership between NASA, private industry, and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research is really a model for how organizations can work together to benefit both government programs and civilians.”

In 2006, Dr. Smith Johnston, the lead flight surgeon for NASA’s space shuttle missions, added ResQPOD to the list of medical equipment that is available for returning astronaut crews. The device was on hand for the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-115) on September 21, 2006.

“We’re excited that our devices were available to the medical team [for the STS-115 mission] and look forward to continued collaboration with NASA to assist its efforts to safeguard the health of the astronauts,” added Lurie.

Diagram showing blood flow to the heart during CPR
During the decompression (release) phase of CPR, an increase in negative pressure in the thoracic cavity results in drawing more blood back into the chest, providing greater venous return to the heart.
Diagram showing increased blood flow to the heart with ResQPOD
CPR delivers approximately 15 percent of normal blood flow to the heart. The ResQPOD doubles blood flow back to the heart.

Product Outcome

Manufactured commercially by Advanced Circulatory Systems and distributed by Sylmar, California-based Tri-anim Health Services Inc., the ResQPOD circulatory enhancer improves upon the standard of care for patients with a variety of clinical conditions associated with low blood flow. Advanced Circulatory Systems’ primary commercial focus, though, is on non-breathing patients who can benefit from enhanced circulation, such as those experiencing cardiac arrest.

According to the American Heart Association, about 900 Americans fall victim to sudden cardiac arrest every day, with approximately 95 percent dying before they reach the hospital. This is why cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can mean the difference between life and death, as increasing blood flow to the heart and brain until the heart can be restarted is critical to improving survival rates with normal neurological functioning.

ResQPOD is an American Heart Association-rated Class IIa impedance threshold device, meaning that it is the highest recommended “adjunct” in the association’s latest guidelines for CPR. As a Class IIa impedance threshold device, it also carries a higher recommendation than any medication used to boost circulation in adults suffering cardiac arrest, according to these guidelines.

Diagram showing blood flow to the brain during CPR
Improved venous return results in increased cardiac output during the subsequent compression phase of CPR, providing greater blood flow to the brain.
Diagram showing increased blood flow to the brain with ResQPOD
CPR delivers approximately 25 percent of normal blood flow to the brain. The ResQPOD delivers more than 70 percent of normal blood flow to the brain.

The device is about the size of a fist and can be affixed to either a facemask or an endotracheal breathing tube during CPR. It enhances the intrathoracic vacuum that forms in the chest during the chest recoil phase of CPR by temporarily sealing off the airway between breaths and preventing unnecessary air from entering the chest (timing-assist lights on the device will aid the rescuer in ventilating the patient at a proper rate). The vacuum that is created pulls blood back to the heart, doubling the amount of blood that is pulled back by conventional mouth-to-mouth/chest compression CPR, according to clinical studies, which also show that blood flow to the brain is increased by 50 percent. In sustaining proper blood flow to the heart and to the brain, ResQPOD increases the likelihood of survival and decreases the likelihood of neurological disorders.

ResQPOD is being used by emergency medical technicians in cities all around the country, including Boston, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, and Oklahoma City, as well as Hartford, Connecticut; Kansas City, Missouri; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Toledo, Ohio. In some cities, it has reportedly increased the number of cardiac arrest patients delivered alive to the hospital by as much as 50 percent. At Cypress Creek Emergency Medical Services (EMS), a large medical care organization serving more than 400,000 residents in the greater Houston area, ResQPOD has become a standard of care. Overall resuscitation rates climbed to nearly 50 percent since the organization began deploying the device in 2005, boosting hospital admission rates from 26 percent to an astounding 38 percent.

“These results are gratifying, and we applaud the entire Cypress Creek EMS organization for their advanced emergency medical service care and their ability to turn around the dismal statistics that surround cardiac arrest,” noted Advanced Circulatory Systems’ Lurie.

In its secondary commercial applications, Advanced Circulatory Systems is offering ResQPOD to improve circulation in patients suffering from orthostatic intolerance and general low blood pressure. These secondary uses also apply to individuals who undergo dialysis treatments and may experience a drop in blood pressure, as well as those who go into shock after severe blood loss.

Outside of the traditional hospital setting, the company is investigating the beneficial impact ResQPOD could have on wounded soldiers in the battlefield who may have lost a great deal of blood and are in danger of going into shock.

Advanced Circulatory Systems is also harnessing the physiological principles discovered during its research collaboration with NASA to develop another promising technology: an intrathoracic pressure regulator for patients requiring ventilation assistance because they are too sick to breathe on their own.

ResQPOD® is a registered trademark of Advanced Circulatory Systems Inc.


Space Research Fortifies Nutrition Worldwide

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

In addition to the mammoth engineering challenge posed by launching a cargo-laden craft into space for a long-distance mission, keeping the crews safe and healthy for these extended periods of time in space poses further challenges, problems for which NASA scientists are constantly seeking new answers. Obstacles include maintaining long-term food supplies, ensuring access to clean air and potable water, and developing efficient means of waste disposal—all with the constraints of being in a spacecraft thousands of miles from Earth, and getting farther every minute. NASA continues to overcome these hurdles, though, and is in the process of designing increasingly efficient life support systems to make life aboard the International Space Station sustainable for laboratory crews, and creating systems for use on future lunar laboratories and the upcoming long trip to Mars.

Skylab food heating and serving tray
Shown here is the Skylab food heating and serving tray with food, drink, and utensils. While this represented a great improvement over the food served on earlier space flights, NASA researchers still had plenty of room for progress.

Ideal life support systems for these closed environments would take up very little space, consume very little power, and require limited crew intervention—these much-needed components would virtually disappear while doing their important jobs. One NASA experiment into creating a low-profile life support system involved living ecosystems in contained environments. Dubbed the Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS) these contained systems attempted to address the basic needs of crews, meet stringent payload and power usage restrictions, and minimize space occupancy by developing living, regenerative ecosystems that would take care of themselves and their inhabitants—recreating Earth-like conditions.

Years later, what began as an experiment with different methods of bioregenerative life support for extended-duration, human-crewed space flight, has evolved into one of the most widespread NASA spinoffs of all time.


In the 1980s, Baltimore-based Martin Marietta Corporation worked with NASA to test the use of certain strains of microalgae as a food supply, oxygen source, and a catalyst for waste disposal as part of the CELSS experiments. The plan was for the microalgae to become part of the life support system on long-duration flights, taking on a plethora of tasks with minimal space, energy, and maintenance requirements. During this research, the scientists discovered many things about the microalgae, realizing ultimately that its properties were valuable to people not only in space, but here on Earth, as a nutritional supplement. The scientists, fueled by these discoveries, spun off from Martin Marietta, and in 1985, formed Martek Biosciences Corporation, in Columbia, Maryland.

Product Outcome

Now, after two decades of continued research on the same microalgae studied for use in long-duration space flight, Martek has developed into a major player in the nutrition field, with over 500 employees and annual revenue of more than $270 million. The reach of the company’s space-developed product, though, is what is most impressive. Martek’s main products, life’sDHA and life’sARA, both of which trace directly back to the original NASA CELSS work, can be found in over 90 percent of the infant formulas sold in the United States, and are added to the infant formulas sold in over 65 additional countries. With such widespread use, the company estimates that over 24 million babies worldwide have consumed its nutritional additives.

Outside of the infant formula market, Martek’s commercial partners include General Mills Inc., Yoplait USA Inc., Odwalla Inc., Kellogg Company, and Dean Foods Company’s WhiteWave Foods division (makers of the Silk, Horizon Organic, and Rachel’s brands).

Food products containing arachidonic acid (ARA)
NASA experiments into plant growth for long-duration space flights led to the identification and manufacturing method for a nutritional supplement now found in everyday foods.

Why would so many people consume these products? The primary ingredient is one of the building blocks of health: A fatty acid found in human breast milk, known to improve brain function and visual development, which recent studies have indicated plays a significant role in heart health. It is only introduced to the body through dietary sources, so supplements containing it are in high demand.

The primary discovery Martek made while exploring properties of microalgae for use in long-duration space flights was identifying Crypthecodinium cohnii, a strain of algae that produces docosahexaenoc acid (DHA) naturally and in high quantities. Using the same principles, the company also patented a method for developing another fatty acid that plays a key role in infant health, arachidonic acid (ARA). This fatty acid, it extracts from the fungus Mortierella alpina.

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, naturally found in the body, which plays a key role in infant development and adult health. Most abundant in the brain, eyes, and heart, it is integral in learning ability, mental development, visual acuity, and in the prevention and management of cardiovascular disease.

Approximately 60 percent of the brain is composed of structural fat (the gray matter), of which nearly half is composed of DHA. As such, it is an essential building block for early brain development, as well as a key structural element in maintaining healthy brain functioning through all stages of life. It is especially important in infancy, though, when the most rapid brain growth occurs—the human brain nearly triples in size during the first year of life. Breast milk, which is generally two-thirds fat, is a chief source for DHA for children, both a testament to the body’s need for this substance and an argument for sustainable sources that can be added to infant formula. Studies have shown that adults, too, need DHA for healthy brain functioning, and that the important chemical is delivered through the diet.

DHA is also a key component in the structural fat that makes up the eye, and is vital for visual development and ocular health. The retina, for example, contains a high concentration of DHA, which the body forms from nutritious fats in the diet. With heart tissue, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found supporting evidence that DHA consumption may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

This important compound, previously only found in human breast milk, and with undeniable nutritional value, is now available throughout the world. It is one example of how NASA research intended to sustain life in space has found its way back to Earth, where it is improving the lives of people everywhere.

life’sDHA™ and life’sARA™ are trademarks of Martek Biosciences Corporation.

Silk®, Horizon Organic®, and Rachel’s® are registered trademarks of the WhiteWave Foods Company.


Polymer Coats Leads on Implantable Medical Device

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Langley Research Center’s Soluble Imide (LaRC-SI) was discovered by accident. While researching resins and adhesives for advanced composites for high-speed aircraft, Robert Bryant, a Langley engineer, noticed that one of the polymers he was working with did not behave as predicted. After putting the compound through a two-stage controlled chemical reaction, expecting it to precipitate as a powder after the second stage, he was surprised to see that the compound remained soluble. This novel characteristic ended up making this polymer a very significant finding, eventually leading Bryant and his team to win several NASA technology awards, and an “R&D 100” award.

The unique feature of this compound is the way that it lends itself to easy processing. Most polyimides (members of a group of remarkably strong and incredibly heat- and chemical-resistant polymers) require complex curing cycles before they are usable. LaRC-SI remains soluble in its final form, so no further chemical processing is required to produce final materials, like thin films and varnishes. Since producing LaRC-SI does not require complex manufacturing techniques, it has been processed into useful forms for a variety of applications, including mechanical parts, magnetic components, ceramics, adhesives, composites, flexible circuits, multilayer printed circuits, and coatings on fiber optics, wires, and metals.

Thin metal lead wires use NASA-developed polymer insulation.
Medtronic’s cardiac resynchronization therapy devices use the NASA-developed polymer as insulation on thin metal lead wires.

Bryant’s team was, at the time, heavily involved with the aircraft polymer project and could not afford to further develop the polymer resin. Believing it was worth further exploration, though, he developed a plan for funding development and submitted it to Langley’s chief scientist, who endorsed the experimentation. Bryant then left the high-speed civil transport project to develop LaRC-SI. The result is an extremely tough, lightweight thermoplastic that is not only solvent-resistant, but also has the ability to withstand temperature ranges from cryogenic levels to above 200 °C. The thermoplastic’s unique characteristics lend it to many commercial applications; uses that Bryant believed would ultimately benefit industry and the Nation. “LaRC-SI,” he explains, “is a product created in a government laboratory, funded with money from the tax-paying public. What we discovered helps further the economic competitiveness of the United States, and it was our goal to initiate the technology transfer process to ensure that our work benefited the widest range of people.”

Several NASA centers, including Langley, have explored methods for using LaRC-SI in a number of applications from radiation shielding and as an adhesive to uses involving replacement of conventional rigid circuit boards. In the commercial realm, LaRC-SI can now be found in several commercial products, including the thin-layer composite unimorph ferroelectric driver and sensor (THUNDER) piezoelectric actuator, another “R&D 100” award winner (Spinoff 2005).


Working with the Innovative Partnerships Program office at Langley, Medtronic Inc., of Minneapolis, Minnesota, licensed the material. This material has been evaluated for space applications, high-performance composites, and harsh environments; however, this partnership represents the first time that the material has been used in a medical device.

According to Bryant, “This partnership validates the belief we had that LaRC-SI needed to be introduced in (or by) the private sector: Lives can be saved and enhanced because we were able to develop our laboratory findings and provide public access to the material.”

Product Outcome

Chemical engineer Robert Bryant works with Langley Research Center’s Soluble Imide (LaRC-SI).
LaRC-SI is applied to another material in a laboratory.
LaRC-SI is an amorphous thermoplastic developed by Robert Bryant, a chemical engineer at Langley. LaRC-SI has excellent adhesive and dielectric properties and can be reformed at elevated temperature and pressures. It can be applied in the form of a spray, spin, dip coating, paint, or spread with a blade.

Medtronic is the world leader in medical technology providing lifelong solutions for people with chronic disease. It offers products, therapies, and services that enhance or extend the lives of millions of people. Each year, 6 million patients benefit from Medtronic’s technology, used to treat conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders, and vascular illnesses.

The company is testing the material for use as insulation on thin metal wires connected to its implantable cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) devices for patients experiencing heart failure, which resynchronize the contractions of the heart’s ventricles by sending tiny electrical impulses to the heart muscle, helping the heart pump blood throughout the body more efficiently.

“Our work with NASA Langley was very collaborative,” said Lonny Stormo, Medtronic vice president of therapy delivery research and development. “Our scientists discussed Medtronic’s material requirements and NASA shared what it knows about the compound’s properties as we continued our testing and evaluations.”

In March 2007, Medtronic conducted the first clinical implants in the United States and Canada of the Medtronic over-the-wire lead (Model 4196), a dual-electrode left ventricular (LV) lead for use in heart failure patients with cardiac resynchronization therapy devices.

“Through this partnership, Medtronic was able to deliver a product with enhanced material properties,” said Stormo. “In turn this helps our patients, which is the core of Medtronic’s mission.”

Placing a lead in the LV is widely recognized by physicians as the most challenging aspect of implanting CRT devices. Anatomic challenges can make it difficult to access and work within the coronary sinus to place a lead in the desired vein of the LV. The lead is specially designed for optimal tracking over a guide wire, which is intended to allow physicians greater ability to deliver the left heart lead in difficult-to-access veins.

Once implanted in the LV, two electrodes located at the tip of the lead provide physicians with options to tailor delivery of stimulation for each patient. When approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the lead is expected to be the smallest LV lead in the U.S. market.


NASA research could lead to predicting sinkholes

Two NASA researchers examined radar images and discovered that the ground near a huge sinkhole had begun shifting at least a month earlier. The findings raise the possibility that engineers eventually could develop a way to predict the location of sinkholes.

WASHINGTON — Radar images taken from planes or satellites could someday be used to predict where sinkholes might form — a potential boon for Florida, the nation’s sinkhole capital.

The possibility of an early-warning system stems from new NASA research into a monstrous sinkhole that opened in Louisiana in 2012, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

Two NASA researchers examined radar images of the sinkhole area near Bayou Corne, La. Cathleen Jones and Ron Blom discovered that the ground near Bayou Corne began shifting at least a month before the sinkhole formed — as much as 10 inches toward where the sinkhole started. Since its formation, the sinkhole has expanded to 25 acres and is still growing.

The NASA findings raise the possibility that engineers eventually could develop a way to predict the location of sinkholes. It would require the constant collection and monitoring of the Earth’s surface with radar data collected from planes or satellites.

“It’s not a magic bullet,” Blom said. But it could be “one more tool in a tool kit.”

The radar images studied by the two NASA scientists were part of the agency’s ongoing effort to monitor the Louisiana coast, which is rapidly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Although the Louisiana images were taken from a research jet, the scientists said a satellite with similar technology could do the same job.

And though such a system wouldn’t be cheap — the price of building and launching a satellite usually is in the hundreds of millions of dollars — the gains could be significant. In Florida alone, sinkholes cause about that much property damage each year.

Although there are no recent state data on sinkhole damage, a 2010 report by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation estimated that sinkholes each year cost the state $200 million to $400 million.

Thousands of claims related to sinkholes were made and closed in recent years. In 2009 alone, there were about 4,700 closed claims and 2,600 open claims, according to the report. The majority of claims tallied by state officials were from three counties — Hernando, Pasco and Hillsborough along Florida’s west coast — though Orange and Polk were in the top 10 statewide from 2006 to 2010.

In one high-profile case last year, a sinkhole wrecked villas at Summer Bay Resort near Walt Disney World, forcing residents to evacuate.

There’s a human cost, too. Even though sinkhole deaths are rare, a Hillsborough County man was killed last year when a sinkhole formed beneath his house.

The prevalence of sinkholes in Florida can be attributed to the state’s geology.

Sinkholes are most commonly found in areas where the underlying rock can easily be dissolved by groundwater. Once eroded, the surface then can collapse into underground caves and other spaces. Florida, with its wet climate and porous limestone beneath the surface, is particularly susceptible to this type of natural disaster.

Aware of the dangers, Florida officials also are taking steps to detect sinkholes.

Last year, state geologists began a three-year, $1 million project to identify which areas in Florida are most conducive to sinkhole formation. They’ve begun by surveying three northern Florida counties — Columbia, Hamilton and Suwannee — with the goal of creating a statewide “rating of vulnerability for sinkhole formation,” said Clint Kromhout, a geologist with the Florida Geological Survey.

The hope, he added, is to give emergency officials more information to help “mitigate against potential loss of property and life during sinkhole formation,” he said.

Although property owners have limited options when faced with a sinkhole — other than to evacuate — state officials said knowing more about vulnerable areas could help homebuilders and local governments avoid sinkholes when planning developments.

“One of the most important things we can do, and one of the more effective things we can do, is educate the public about the risks,” said Aaron Gallaher, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Sensors Provide Early Warning of Biological Threats

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution 

A postage stamp-size biosensor holding millions of carbon nanotubes
Containing millions of carbon nanotubes, the NASA biosensor can alert inspectors to minute amounts of potentially dangerous organic contaminants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are between 4 and 11 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses in the United States each year—caused by pathogens in public drinking water. The bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella have within the past few years contaminated spinach and tomato supplies, leading to nationwide health scares. Elsewhere, waterborne diseases are devastating populations in developing countries like Zimbabwe, where a cholera epidemic erupted in 2008 and claimed over 4,000 lives.

Scientists have found an unexpected source of inspiration in the effort to prevent similar disasters: the search for life on Mars. The possibility of life on the Red Planet has been a subject of popular and scientific fascination since the 19th century. While Martian meteorites have turned up controversial hints of organic activity, and NASA’s exploratory efforts have delivered important discoveries related to potential life—the presence of water ice, and plumes of methane in Mars’s atmosphere—direct evidence of organisms on our closest planetary relative has yet to be found.

In order to help detect biological traces on Mars, scientists at Ames Research Center began work on an ultrasensitive biosensor in 2002. The chief components of the sensor are carbon nanotubes, which are the major focus of research at the Center for Nanotechnology at Ames—the U.S. Government’s largest nanotechnology research group and one of the largest in the world. Tubes of graphite about 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, carbon nanotubes can be grown up to several millimeters in length and display remarkable properties. They possess extreme tensile strength (the equivalent of a cable 1 millimeter in diameter supporting nearly 14,000 pounds) and are excellent conductors of heat and electricity.

It is the nanotubes’ electrical properties that Ames researchers employed in creating the biosensor. The sensor contains a bioreceptor made of nanotubes tipped with single strands of nucleic acid of waterborne pathogens, such as E. coli and Cryptosporidium. When the probe strand contacts a matching strand from the environment, it binds into a double helix, releasing a faint electrical charge that the nanotube conducts to the sensor’s transducer, signaling the presence of the specific pathogens found in the water. Because the sensor contains millions of nanotubes, it is highly sensitive to even minute amounts of its target substance. Tiny, requiring little energy and no laboratory expertise, the sensor is ideal for use in space and, as it turns out, on Earth as well.


“Carbon nanotubes are the wonder material of nanotechnology,” says Neil Gordon, president of Early Warning Inc., based in Troy, New York. “The opportunity was ripe to put that technology into a product.” Gordon encountered the director of the Center for Nanotechnology, Meyya Meyyappan, at a number of industry conferences, and the two discussed the possible terrestrial applications of NASA’s biosensor. In 2007, Early Warning exclusively licensed the biosensor from Ames and entered into a Space Act Agreement to support further, joint development of the sensor through 2012.

Product Outcome

Early Warning initially developed a working version of the NASA biosensor calibrated to detect the bacteria strain E. coliO157:H7, known to cause acute gastrointestinal illness. It also detects indicator E. coli, commonly used in water testing. In the process, the company worked out a method for placing multiple sensors on a single wafer, allowing for mass production and cost-effective testing. In April, at the 2009 American Water Works Association “Water Security Congress,” Early Warning launched its commercial Biohazard Water Analyzer, which builds upon the licensed NASA biosensor and can be configured to test for a suite of waterborne pathogens including E. coliCryptosporidiumGiardia, and other bacteria, viruses, and parasitic protozoa. The analyzer uses a biomolecule concentrator—an Early Warning invention—to reduce a 10-liter water sample to 1 milliliter in about 45 minutes. The concentrated sample is then processed and fed to the biosensor. The entire process takes about 2 hours, a drastic improvement over typical laboratory-based water sampling, which can take several days to a week. The sensor operates in the field via a wired or wireless network and without the need for a laboratory or technicians, allowing for rapid, on-the-fly detection and treatment of potentially dangerous organic contaminants.

The Early Warning water analyzer
Early Warning’s analyzer feeds a concentrated water sample to its biosensor, providing rapid pathogen detection.

“The sensor is incredibly sensitive and specific to the type of pathogen it is calibrated to detect in the water,” says Gordon. “Instead of just detecting coliforms in the water that may or may not indicate the presence of pathogens, we will know if there are infectious strains of SalmonellaE. coli, or Giardia that could sicken or even kill vulnerable people if consumed.” (Coliform bacteria levels typically indicate water and food sanitation quality.)

The water analyzer has multiple applications, notes Gordon. Early Warning’s system can monitor recreational water quality at beaches and lakes, which can be contaminated by animal feces, farming activities, and infectious pathogens in human waste. Agricultural companies may use the analyzer to test feed water for cattle, and food and beverage companies may employ the sensor to ensure the purity of water used in their products. Health care organizations have expressed interest in using the analyzer to test water from showers and other potential sources of pathogens like Legionella, which causes the flu-like Legionnaires’ disease.

Early Warning and Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas, are collaborating on sensor enhancements such as improving the safety of imported produce. Since the skins of fruits and vegetables are potential sites of dangerous pathogens, inspectors could collect water sprayed on the produce and, using the analyzer, know within a few hours whether a particular shipment is contaminated. Last year, Kansas State was selected as the home for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which could also benefit Early Warning.

“We’re eager to show how the private sector, government agencies, and academia can work together to evolve this platform into products that benefit our citizens,” says Gordon. With an aging U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure, increasingly severe weather systems, global travel and food imports affecting the proliferation of disease-causing organisms, and more than 1 billion people worldwide without access to safe water (according to the World Health Organization), the fruits of this partnership may be more necessary than ever.