‘NASA Invention of the Year’ Controls Noise and Vibration

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center, the Macro-Fiber Composite (MFC) is an innovative, low-cost piezoelectric device designed for controlling vibration, noise, and deflections in composite structural beams and panels. It was created for use on helicopter blades and airplane wings as well as for the shaping of aerospace structures at NASA.

The MFC is an actuator in the form of a thin patch, almost like a 3- by 2-inch bandage comprised of piezoelectric fibers, an epoxy matrix, and polyimide electrodes, and is also called a piezocomposite. If one applies a voltage to the MFC it will stretch, and if attached to a structure it will cause the surface to bend. The major advantages of a piezofiber composite actuator are higher performance, flexibility, and durability, compared to a traditional piezoceramic actuator.

MFCs consist of rectangular piezoceramic rods sandwiched between layers of adhesive film containing tiny electrodes that transfer a voltage directly to and from ribbon-shaped rods that are no thicker than a few tenths of a millimeter. These miniscule actuators are roughly equivalent to human muscles—flexing, stretching, and returning to their original position when electricity is applied.

Because any external mechanical deformation of an MFC package produces a charge on the electrodes proportional to the deflection, its compression or stretching also enables the MFC to be used as a self-powered sensor. Defects within structures can therefore be detected, or small amounts of energy can be collected and stored for later use.

Macro-Fiber Composite
The Macro-Fiber Composite’s flat profile and use as a sensor and an actuator allows for use in critical or tight areas where other technologies with larger volumetric profiles cannot be used.

The MFC’s combination of small size, durability, flexibility, and versatility allows it to be integrated—along with highly efficient electronic control systems—into a wide range of products. Potential applications include sonar; range-measuring and fish-finding equipment; directional-force and fingerprint sensors; flow meters; and vibration/noise control in aircraft and automobiles. Since its original development in 1999, the MFC has been used in government and industrial applications ranging from vibration reduction to structural health monitoring.

NASA has used MFC piezocomposites for alleviating tail buffeting in aircraft, controlling unsteady aerodynamics and noise on helicopter rotor blades, and actively reducing vibrations in large deployable spacecraft structures. The MFC has been used as a sensor for impedance-based health monitoring of launch tower structures at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, for strain feedback sensing and control in industrial arc welding equipment, in an STS-123 experiment, in solar sail technology, and in ultra-lightweight inflatable structures.

The MFC has been internationally recognized for its innovative design, receiving two prestigious “R&D 100” awards in 2000, including the “R&D Editor’s Choice” award as one of the 100 most significant technical products of the year. The MFC was also the recipient of the International Forum’s prestigious “iF Gold” award, in Germany, for design excellence in 2004. In March 2007, the MFC was awarded the title of “NASA Invention of the Year.”


Smart Material Corporation, of Sarasota, Florida, specializes in the development of piezocomposite components. The company licensed the MFC technology from Langley in 2002, and then added it to their line of commercially produced actuators.

It now combines the Langley MFC’s piezoelectric properties with the robustness and conformability of plastics to radically extend the spectrum of commercial applications.

A NASA partnership gives a small company access to research and technologies that allow it to compete with larger corporations. According to Thomas Daue, with Smart Material Corporation, “For a small business, it is almost not possible anymore to spend the money for basic research in high tech products. Licensing technology from the leading research facilities in this country is a very cost effective way to become a player in a new technology field. Many developments ready for licensing at government-owned facilities have already reached the proof of concept status, which would often cost a small business or start-up millions of dollars.”

Smart Material Corporation is now marketing MFCs internationally, with the majority of applications in the United States directed at Federal government research projects or defense-related government contracts. For example, Smart Material Corporation currently sells the materials to Langley, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Marshall Space Flight Center, where they are used as strain gauge sensors, as well as to the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army.

Product Outcome

Macro-Fiber Composite flexing
When compared to standard piezoelectric systems, the MFC is much more durable and provides increased unidirectional control. Furthermore, the MFC is designed to be readily integrated into a system as an add-on component or integrated during manufacture.

To date, Smart Material Corporation has sold MFCs to over 120 customers, including such industry giants as Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda, BMW, General Electric, and the tennis company, HEAD. The company also estimates that its customers have filed at least 100 patents for their unique uses of the technology.

Smart Material Corporation’s main manufacturing facilities are located in Dresden, Germany, in the vicinity of the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Sintered Materials, one of the world’s leading research institutes in the field of advanced ceramics. Dresden is also the center of the German semiconductor industry, and so provides crucial interdisciplinary resources for further MFC refinement. In addition to its Sarasota facility, the company also has sales offices in Dresden and in Tokyo, Japan.

The company’s product portfolio has grown to include piezoceramic fibers and fiber composites, piezoceramic actuators and sensors, and test equipment for these products. It also offers a compact, lightweight power system for MFC testing and validation.

Smart Material Corporation believes that solid-state actuator systems, including piezoceramics, will have healthy commercial growth in the coming years, with increasing penetration in industrial, medical, automotive, defense, and consumer markets. Consumer applications already on the market include piezoelectric systems as part of audio speakers, phonograph cartridges and microphones, and recreational products requiring vibration control, such as skis, snowboards, baseball bats, hockey sticks, and tennis racquets.

Onboard Systems Record Unique Videos of Space Missions

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

A worker assembling electronics for the LCROSS mission Image courtesy of Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation An artist’s rendering of LCROSS launching toward the Moon
The science payload panel (left) for LCROSS (in the artist rendering above) underwent final testing at Ames Research Center in late 2007. The Data Handling Unit built by Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation is the gold box near the center.

It was one of the few times that a crash landing would be deemed a success. On October 9, 2009, nine sensor instruments—including five cameras—onboard the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) watched closely as the Moon-bound spacecraft released the spent upper stage of its Centaur launch vehicle at the lunar surface. The instrument-bearing shepherding spacecraft beamed back video of the Centaur’s impact and then descended through the resulting plume, gathering data on the composition of the ejected material until it too impacted within the lunar crater Cabeus. The mission yielded a wealth of information confirming what scientists had hoped for: the presence of water on the Moon.

A specially designed avionics unit controlled, routed, and transmitted back to Earth the precious data gathered from all of LCROSS’ onboard instruments. The crucial control unit was the outcome of a collaboration between NASA’s Ames Research Center and a unique company whose products have benefited from this and other NASA partnerships.


In 1999, a company called BlastOff! Corporation was formed in Pasadena, California, with the intent of landing the first commercial robotic lander, equipped with a host of onboard video and imaging systems, on the Moon. The company folded in 2001, but a group of BlastOff! employees went on to form Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation, also of Pasadena, to take advantage of the expertise they developed in creating ruggedized video systems for use in space.

Onboard video systems for rockets or spacecraft provide stunning footage of launches and space activities—valuable material for educating and inspiring interest in space exploration. But another significant benefit is the essential information these video feeds provide to engineers on the ground. While casual viewers get to experience a virtual ride into space, watching the Earth fall away under a rocket’s flames, engineers gain important situational awareness, allowing them to monitor and evaluate a rocket launch or the activity of a complicated mechanical device on a spacecraft.

The need for comprehensive situational awareness became readily apparent in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster. The Space Shuttle Columbia broke up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere during its 2003 mission, killing its seven crewmembers. Investigators concluded the shuttle’s destruction was caused by hot gasses entering through a hole in the thermal protection of the vehicle’s left wing; the hole was caused by the impact of a chunk of foam insulation that broke away from the shuttle’s external fuel tank during launch.

Seeking ways to improve situational awareness for future shuttle launches, NASA examined the use of multiple onboard cameras. On the STS-114 Return to Flight mission, Ecliptic’s external tank camera captured the breakaway of a large piece of insulating foam, an incident which again grounded the shuttle fleet for nearly a year until the problem could be resolved. Of the multiple cameras trained on the shuttle during the launch, only Ecliptic’s onboard camera provided the precise time the foam broke away from the tank, says company CEO and former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Rex Ridenoure.

“The value of onboard video for situational awareness really got a boost in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy,” he says. Now the shuttle features multiple camera systems mounted on the external tank and on the solid rocket boosters.

Ecliptic RocketCam systems were incorporated into multiple other NASA missions—including the Delta II rockets for the 2003 twin Mars Exploration Rover missions and on the Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) spacecraft in 2005—before the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ames in 2007 to collaborate on projects for onboard imaging systems and related technologies. As part of this collaboration, Ecliptic opened a small office in the Ames-based NASA Research Park.

Ecliptic became involved in the LCROSS mission when Ames principal investigator Anthony Colaprete realized the company’s digital video controller—the avionics unit of its RocketCam Digital Video System (DVS) technology—could serve as the core technology for the spacecraft’s Data Handling Unit, providing cost-effective control capabilities for its sensors.

“Up until this time, our video controllers were only controlling video cameras and other imaging sensors,” says Ridenoure. “LCROSS wanted us to control several other sensors we had never seen, with lots of switching between them, lots of data formatting.” The demands of the LCROSS mission required Ecliptic to develop a controller capable of handling higher data rates, more frequent sensor switching, and more data formatting complexities than its previous systems.

“LCROSS helped us push the capabilities of these digital video controllers and set us up to start tackling high-speed and high-definition video,” Ridenoure says.

Ecliptic was able to advance its technology even further following the successful LCROSS mission. The company collaborated with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center to develop a high-speed video system for monitoring the parachute deployments for the Constellation Abort Flight Test program, designed to test a launch abort system for the Orion crew capsule. Ridenoure says Ecliptic’s work with Dryden developed the company’s high-speed video capabilities and primed its technology for high-definition applications, since high-speed and high-definition share similar data rates.

Product Outcome

An eight-camera digital video system with a pen for size comparison
Image courtesy of Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation
Smaller, more capable RocketCam Digital Video Systems such as this will be used onboard future NASA, commercial, and defense rockets and spacecraft.

To date, Ecliptic’s analog and digital RocketCam systems have been employed on more than 80 rocket launches and spacecraft missions for customers including NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and multiple aerospace companies. The company’s technology has captured unique perspectives of an array of rocket launches, including Delta IIs, IIIs, and IVs; Atlas IIs, IIIs, and Vs; Titan IVs; and Minotaur Is and IVs. Ecliptic video systems also allowed the world to share the experience of Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne aircraft making the first-ever privately funded human space flight. The company’s systems are part of launches roughly every 4 to 6 weeks—with 8 to 12 in a typical year.

Ecliptic does not manufacture cameras, but rather takes off-the-shelf sensors, ruggedizes them to withstand the extreme conditions of launches and space operations, and houses them in protective pods and other enclosures that are affixed to the rocket or spacecraft. The company’s key technology is its digital video controller, which is why Ridenoure is quick to note that Ecliptic is not a “camera company.”

“Ninety percent of what we do is avionics, sensor-handling, and data switching, like what we did for LCROSS,” he says.

Thanks to the company’s work on the LCROSS mission and the Abort Flight Test program, Ecliptic has gained not only desirable technical capabilities but also caché among commercial spacecraft developers.

“From a commercialization angle, it’s largely because our systems were baselined and approved for various challenging NASA missions that commercial satellite programs have confidence in our systems for their spacecraft,” Ridenoure says. Ecliptic systems with “lots of heritage with the one we had on LCROSS” are now on geosynchronous commercial satellites. The company has also generated a preliminary design for a high-definition video system based on the experience it gained from its Ames and Dryden work and anticipates its first sale in this category within the next year.

As NASA and commercial space partners develop new vehicles for traveling into low Earth orbit and beyond, Ecliptic expects to provide the video footage that will keep engineers apprised and the public in awe. Ecliptic systems are set to be incorporated on the Orbital Sciences Cygnus vehicle and Taurus II rocket, designed to ferry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. This year, the company received its largest contract ever to supply the United Space Alliance with RocketCam DVS technology for solid rocket boosters on future NASA launch vehicles.

Ecliptic will also enable a major educational and public outreach project when it launches onboard the two Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft, set to map the gravitational field of the Moon in late 2011. MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students) will be composed of Ecliptic video systems on each spacecraft and is sponsored by Sally Ride Science, led by the former astronaut who also initiated the ISS EarthKAM. Students will be able to schedule video recordings and retrieve the clips from NASA’s datastream for educational activities, hopefully inspiring a new generation of space explorers.

RocketCam™ is a trademark of Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation.


Need an electronic timecard system? NASA has the code for you

Over the years, NASA has famously invented a number of technologies that have since entered into many of our everyday lives. For instance, NASA had a hand in the invention of insulin pumpsscratch-resistant lenses and memory foam(though not, despite what you may have heard, in the invention of Tang, Velcro or Teflon; it just helped make them popular). We may all soon benefit again from NASA brainpower thanks to the recent release of lots and lots of software code developed by and for the space agency.


Photo of the cover of NASA's 2014 Software Catalog



Last week, NASA’s Technology Transfer Program published its Software Catalog, which documents code for over 1,000 projects which is being made available to the public. The catalog documents what the code does, what (if any) restrictions are placed on it (some code is released to the general public, some for use by U.S. citizens only, some only for use on behalf of the government) and how to get it. In most cases, you can’t just download this code; you have to request access to it explaining what you plan to use it for.

Of course, you’re probably thinking, “Cool, but this doesn’t really affect me, since I’m not designing a spacecraft to go into orbit or to the moon.” While it’s true that lots of this code has to do with pretty NASA-y type of stuff like aeronautics, life support systems and propulsion (e.g. Advanced Ducted Propfan Analysis Code, which “solves tightly coupled internal/external flows through future-concept short-duct turbofan engines”) , there’s also quite a bit of other code that may be of interest to your business or for personal use. 

I took a spin through the catalog, which is currently only available in PDF form but will reportedly be made available via a searchable database and online repository, and identified some of the more mundane code that may actually be of use or interest.

Business Tools

Use these NASA-developed tools to help with the day-to-day tasks of running your company:


  • Electronic Timecard System – “The Electronic Timecard System can be utilized by any business or organization wishing to streamline its payroll department procedures. The automated system minimizes the consumption of paper and eliminates the need for weekly pick-up and delivery of time sheets. The tool also simplifies the daily recording of time worked by employees, and it allows employees to “sign” their “timecards” electronically at the end of each week. Supervisors can review an employee’s electronic timecards daily and sign them electronically.”

  • Goal Performance Evaluation System  – “The Goal Performance Evaluation System (GPES) is an innovative interactive software application that implements, validates, and evaluates an organization’s performance by the achievements of its employees. The tool has been used for strategic planning, employee performance management, and center-wide communication. The system is Web-based and uses a relational database to host information.

  • Can I Buy – “The Can I Buy tool automates processes used to request and approve procurements. The software allows registered users to create, submit, un-submit, and delete purchase requests. Different capabilities are provided depending on a person’s ‘role.’ Privileged roles include branch head, assistant branch head, secretary, resource analyst, credit card specialist, and tool administrator. Email is the medium of communication in the system.”


Developer/admin tools

Software developers and system administrators may find some useful tools in the catalog such as:


  • Ballast: Balancing Load Across Systems – “Ballast is a tool for balancing user load across Secure Shell Handler (SSH) servers. The system includes a load-balancing client, a lightweight data server, scripts for collecting system load, and scripts for analyzing user behavior. Because Ballast is invoked as part of the SSH login process, it has access to user names. This capability, which is not available in traditional approaches, enables Ballast to perform user-specific load balancing. In addition, Ballast is easy to install, induces near-zero overhead, and has fault-tolerant features in its architectures that will eliminate single points of failure.”

  • Multi-threaded Copy Program – “MCP is a high-performance file copy utility that achieves performance gains through parallelization. Multiple files and parts of single files are processed in parallel using multiple threads on multiple processors. The program employs the OpenMP and MPI programming models.”

  • NASA World Wind Java (WWJ) Software Development Kit (SDK) and Web Mapping Services – “NASA World Wind is an intuitive software application supporting the interactive exploration of a variety of data presented within a geospatial context. The technology offers a 3D graphics user experience with seamless, integrated access to a variety of online data sources via open-standards protocols.”


Fun stuff

NASA has developed some tools which may not be particularly useful to most of us, but which still sound like they’d be fun to tinker around with, such as:


  • Spacecraft Docking Simulation – “This simulation is a simplified version of the rendezvous and docking scenario performed by Space Shuttle astronauts docking at the International Space Station (ISS).”

  • NASA Forecast Model Web – “NFMW reads weather forecast models outputs; subsets the data to the region of interest; interpolates the data to the specified size; generates a visualization of the data using colors, contour lines, or arrows; and sends the visualization to the client.”

  • Station Spacewalk Game App – “This video game features simulations of Extravehicular Activities (EVAs) conducted by NASA astronauts on missions to the International Space Station.”


While none of the offerings in the catalog may have the impact of, say, cochlear implants, it seems like there are still useful nuggets here. Or maybe you just want to contribute back to NASA by helping them out with their code? Either way, take a look and have fun!


NASA Announces Invention Of The Year Award Competition: The Right Stuff Sports Hydration Formula Honored

The Right Stuff® (Wellness Brands), electrolyte drink additive that hydrates strenuous-exercising astronauts, athletes, laborers and first responders, was named NASA Commercial Invention of the Year runner-up.

The formula, developed by NASA scientist Dr. John Greenleaf and licensed to Wellness Brands Inc. of Boulder, Colo., was created to combat astronauts’ dehydration upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Marketed as The Right Stuff®, the sugar-free, liquid concentrate – added to at least 16 oz. of water – delivers much more electrolytes, replacing the amount lost by sweat from heat or rigorous exercise lasting over an hour.

“This is serious hydration for serious athletes,” says Wellness Brands President and CEO David Belaga, adding that the no-nonsense, performance aid is not a substitute for other sports drinks used by ordinary exercisers.

“It was developed because astronauts suffer from severe dehydration upon re-entry into Earth’s gravity. It’s now available and being used by athletes here on earth, including professional, college, high school and Olympic athletes as well as industrial workers, military personnel and firefighters who perform hot, strenuous tasks.

 Based on numerous published studies, The Right Stuff does a far better job:
  • Combating dehydration symptoms like cramps, headaches, light-headedness, muscle fatigue and dizziness
  • Improving core thermal regulation which means it helps protect the body from overheating, and
  • Increasing endurance by over 20 percent more than any other NASA-tested formula.

The formula’s sodium citrate is a buffer that prevents stomach and GI issues and converts to sodium bicarbonate, offsetting some of the negative effects of lactic acid buildup in a way that benefits both power athletes and endurance athletes.

“The formula also is a great aid for jet lag, altitude sickness and even for relief from the effects of excessive alcohol consumption,” Belaga says.

Wellness Brands Inc.: The Right Stuff®, introduced in 2009, was nominated for NASA Commercial Invention of the Year 2012 by NASA workers. NASA’s Inventions and Contributions Board that evaluated the nominations recently announced the awards.

Boulder, Colorado based Wellness Brands Inc., markets the NASA-developed hydration technology throughout the US and in various countries internationally.