Simulation Packages Expand Aircraft Design Options

NASA Technology

When engineers explore designs for safer, more fuel efficient, or faster aircraft, they encounter a common problem: they never know exactly what will happen until the vehicle gets off the ground.

“You will never get the complete answer until you build the airplane and fly it,” says Colin Johnson of Desktop Aeronautics. “There are multiple levels of simulation you can do to approximate the vehicle’s performance, however.”

altWhen designing a new air vehicle, computational fluid dynamics, or CFD, comes in very handy for engineers. CFD can predict the flow of fluids and gasses around an object—such as over an aircraft’s wing—by running complex calculations of the fluid physics. This information is helpful in assessing the aircraft’s aerodynamic performance and handling characteristics.

In 2001, after several years of development, NASA released a new approach to CFD called Cart3D. The tool provides designers with an automated, highly accurate computer simulation suite to streamline the conceptual analysis of aerospace vehicles. Specifically, it allows users to perform automated CFD analysis on complex vehicle designs. In 2002, the innovation won NASA’s Software of the Year award.

Michael Aftosmis, one of the developers of Cart3D and a fluid mechanics engineer at Ames Research Center, says the main purpose of the program was to remove the mesh generation bottleneck from CFD. A major benefit of Cart3D is that the mesh, or the grid for analyzing designs, is produced automatically. Traditionally, the mesh has been generated by hand, and requires months or years to produce for complex vehicle configurations. Cart3D’s automated volume mesh generation enables even the most complex geometries to be modeled hundreds of times faster, usually within seconds. “It allows a novice user to get the same quality results as an expert,” says Aftosmis.

Now, a decade later, NASA continues to enhance Cart3D to meet users’ needs for speed, power, and flexibility. Cart3D provides the best of both worlds—the payoff of using a complex, high-fidelity simulation with the ease of use and speed of a much simpler, lower-fidelity simulation method. Aftosmis explains how instead of simulating just one case, Cart3D’s ease of use and automation allows a user to efficiently simulate many cases to understand how a vehicle behaves for a range of conditions. “Cart3D is the first tool that was able to do that successfully,” he says.

At NASA, Aftosmis estimates that 300–400 engineers use the package. “We use it for space vehicle design, supersonic aircraft design, and subsonic aircraft design.”

Technology Transfer

To enable more use of Cart3D for private and commercial aviation entities, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program at Langley Research Center provided funds to Desktop Aeronautics, based in Palo Alto, California, to build a plug-in to Cart3D that increases the code’s accuracy under particular flow conditions. Aftosmis says Desktop Aeronautics delivered valuable results and made Cart3D more applicable for general use. “Now they are bringing the product to market. This is something we never would have had the time to do at NASA. That’s the way the SBIR process is supposed to work.”

In 2010, Desktop Aeronautics acquired a license from Ames to sell Cart3D. The company further enhanced the software by making it cross-platform, incorporated a graphical user interface, and added specialized features to enable extra computation for the analysis of airplanes with engines and exhaust.

“I think it’s going to be game-changing for CFD,” says Aftosmis. “Cart3D is the only commercial simulation tool that can guarantee the accuracy of every solution the user does.”


altToday, Desktop Aeronautics employs Cart3D in its consulting services and licenses the spinoff product to clients for in-house use. The company provides commercial licenses and academic licenses for research and development projects.

The software package allows users to perform automated CFD analysis on complex designs and, according to the company, enables geometry acquisition and mesh generation to be performed within a few minutes on most desktop computers.

Simulations generated by Cart3D are assisting organizations in the design of subsonic aircraft, space planes, spacecraft, and high speed commercial jets. Customers are able to simulate the efficiency of designs through performance metrics such as lift-to-drag ratio.

“It will assemble a spectrum of solutions for many different cases, and from that spectrum, the cases that perform best give insight into how to improve one’s design,” says Johnson. “Cart3D’s preeminent benefit is that it’s automated and can handle complex geometry. It’s blazing fast. You push a button, and it takes care of the volume meshing and flow measurement.”

Without building an aircraft, engineers can never be completely certain which design concept will perform best in flight. However, they now have a tool to make the most informed prediction possible.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Five myths about NASA

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech announcing plans to send Americans to the moon — and marks the end of the space shuttle program. Today, many Americans have no memory of the moon landing, and NASA isn’t a source of pride but a budget line that needs to be cut. Why spend billions exploring an uninhabitable environment when many Americans don’t have health care? To understand the importance of our space program, it’s first necessary to debunk some misconceptions about what NASA is and how it operates.

1. NASA’s purpose is to colonize space.

Founded in 1958, a year after the Soviet Union put Sputnik in orbit, NASA was never intended to open space to settlement in the same way the Transcontinental Railroad helped open the American West to pioneers. U.S. foreign policy, not science fiction dreams of cities on the moon, drove the agency.

In contrast to the Soviets’ militarized efforts, President Dwight Eisenhower wanted a peaceful space program that would demonstrate American moral superiority. This civilian agency would be a key part of America’s Cold War strategy. When Kennedy set his eyes on the moon 50 years ago, he asked his science advisers for an initiative “in which we could win.” When Ronald Reagan kicked off the space station program in 1984, his motivations weren’t much different. “We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free,” he said.

Even after the Cold War, the Clinton administration recast human spaceflight as a means of turning Russia’s aerospace industry toward peaceful purposes and validating Russia’s entry into the community of Western democracies. The idea that the U.S. government would spend billions colonizing the solar system reflects the cultural impact of “Star Trek,” not reality.

2. NASA is extraordinarily expensive.

At the height of the Apollo program, NASA consumed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. In the 1960s, that was a lot of money. Today, it’s a rounding error. NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2011 is roughly $18.5 billion — 0.5 percent of a $3.7 trillion federal budget. In 2010, Americans spent about as much on pet food.

And those who complain that it is a waste to spend money in space forget that NASA creates jobs. According to the agency, it employs roughly 19,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors in and around its 10 centers. In the San Francisco area alone, the agency says it created 5,300 jobs and $877 million worth of economic activity in 2009. Ohio, a state hard-hit by the Great Recession that is home to NASA’s Plum Brook Research Station and Glenn Research Center, can’t afford to lose nearly 7,000 jobs threatened by NASA cuts.

Even more people have space-related jobs outside the agency. According to the Colorado Space Coalition, for example, more than 163,000 Coloradans work in the space industry. Though some build rockets for NASA, none show up in the agency’s job data.

3. NASA’s research is useful only in space.

Had a breast exam lately? Algorithms developed for the Hubble Space Telescope improved image processing in mammography. Been caught in a natural disaster? NASA advances in deployable radio antennae helped secure emergency communications after Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Fighting the war on terror? Miniaturized sensors that sniff the air for traces of life on other planets led to the development of easy-to-use, hand-held devices to detect explosives and chemical agents on this one. NASA technology often finds a way back to Earth.

But high-tech spinoffs are not the primary reason to explore space. NASA advances human knowledge. Its Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, recently affixed to the space station, will help answer questions about the total of all matter and offer new insights into the origins and nature of the universe. Hubble has already furthered our understanding of the big bang, black holes, neutrinos and dark energy — issues at the heart of physics and mathematics. Since space missions rely heavily on solar power, NASA is always searching for ways to improve solar cells and batteries and may one day help cure America of its oil addiction. These developments would not appear on NASA’s cost-benefit balance sheet, but they are no less valuable to society.

4. NASA is an obstacle to private enterprise in space.

In a recent debate, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said that “NASA ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector.” In truth, NASA is not an obstacle to the free market. The agency does not prohibit space entrepreneurs from starting businesses. Where a demand for goods and services exists in the space industry — principally in telecommunications, but perhaps soon in suborbital human spaceflight — firms such as the space-transport company Virgin Galactic are trying to provide them.

The bulk of NASA’s missions are not commercially viable and are unlikely ever to be. There is not enough demand for robotic missions to Mars, Hubble Space Telescopes and Alpha Magnetic Spectrometers to justify private investment. If NASA worked the way policymakers such as Gingrich want it to — paradoxically “getting out of the way” while providing venture capitalists government money to start space businesses — the agency could actually hurt private enterprise in space. NASA would not be better at picking commercial winners and losers than the rest of the government. By making poor or even politically motivated choices, it could spoil a free market.

5. The American space program still leads the world.

For most of the Cold War, NASA sought and secured partnerships with foreign space powers. Still, the United States — the only country to put a man on the moon — was first among equals because of its size and experience. NASA set the pace for humanity’s exploration of space.

Those days are over. Nine countries, including India, Israel and Iran, have placed payloads in orbit. More than 50 nations design, deploy, own or operate satellites without U.S. involvement. China and Brazil, for example, have been co-developing Earth observation satellites for years. Japan and China have mapped the moon in considerable detail. India launched its own robotic moon mission in 2008, with a follow-up mission planned in cooperation with Russia. The United States may still have the largest, most ambitious civil program in the world, but it no longer solely charts the world’s future in space.

NASA is in the midst of considerable turmoil. Congress and the agency do not agree on the feasibility of its flagship human spaceflight program, and the president’s direction is vague and under-resourced. Will we go to Mars? Return to the moon? Visit an asteroid? Policymakers haven’t definitively answered any of these questions. To get ahead of the pack, mission control in Washington will need a clearer sense of its mission.


Bringing Thunder and Lightning Indoors

Originating Technology/ NASA Contribution

Piezoelectric materials convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and electrical energy into mechanical energy. They generate electrical charges in response to mechanical stress and generate mechanical displacement and/or force when subjected to an electric current.

Scientists at Langley Research Center have developed a piezoelectric device that is superior in many ways to those that used to be the only ones commercially available. It is tougher, has far greater displacement and greater mechanical load capacity for a comparative voltage operation, can be easily produced at a relatively low cost, and lends itself well to mass production.

Face International Corporation manufacturing plant in Taiwan
Face International Corporation has a manufacturing plant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where it mass produces the Thunder and Lightning piezoelectric components.

The NASA-developed piezoelectric device is also unique in that it is more efficient in extracting electrical energy from the mechanical energy that goes in. It works on a simple principle. A thin ceramic piezoelectric wafer is sandwiched between an aluminum sheet and a steel sheet and held together with LaRC-SI, an amorphous thermoplastic adhesive with special properties created by NASA at Langley. The sandwich is heated in an autoclave, and the adhesive melts. When the sandwich cools, the adhesive bonds the parts together into one piezoelectric element. While they cool, the components of the element contract at different rates, since they are made of different materials. This differential shrinkage causes the element to warp in either a convex or concave shape, depending on which way it is oriented. The shrinking of the outside metal layers places the inside piezoelectric ceramic under mechanical stress. If the element is cantilevered by clamping one side and then plucked, it reverberates like a diving board that has just ejected a diver.

This way, a small amount of mechanical energy can result in a relatively long period of electrical generation. When the piezoelectric element is used for the creation of electricity, it is called Lightning.

This same sandwiched piezoelectric wafer can also convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. Then, it is called Thunder. Electricity goes in, excites the element, and then, mechanical energy in the form of movement is generated.


Face International Corporation, of Norfolk, Virginia, holds several licenses to the Langley piezoelectric technology, including the patent on LaRC-SI and the exclusive international marketing rights. Face is now manufacturing a commercial version in mass quantities with its manufacturing partner, Sunnytec Company Ltd., at a new plant in Taiwan.

Product Outcome

The Lightning Switch assembly
When completely assembled, the Lightning Switch looks much like a typical garage door opener.

The first mass application of this piezoelectric technology is Face International’s Lightning Switch. The Lightning Switch is a wireless, batteryless, remote-controlled light switch, a way to install or replace light switches without any new wiring and without batteries. It is certified for use in the United States and Canada.

Test marketing of the Lightning Switch product started rather humbly last fall, with three mall kiosks in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and an Internet site devoted to the device.

During the test marketing, the product was also aimed at holiday shoppers who might want a remote switch for turning on and off Christmas lights. Holiday revelers who plugged the lights in behind the tree and would otherwise have to move mounds of gifts could now turn the lights on and off without having to brave the tinsel.

The Lightning Switch consists of a remote control transmitter that is modeled after a standard European light switch and a receiver that either plugs into an electrical socket or is wired into an electrical junction box. Pushing the button on the remote control generates enough electricity to send a coded radio signal to the receiver to switch on whatever is plugged or wired into the receiver.

Holiday sales at the kiosks were promising, and Internet sales also contributed to the early success, but these were essentially a marketing experiment for Face International. Serious efforts to penetrate the North American market are underway during this second half of 2005 as Face International begins offering the Lightning Switch for sale through electrical supply houses.

The Lightning Switch mounted on a wall
The Lightning Switch mounts anywhere and requires no wiring.

Although it was, in part, marketed as a device for turning on and off Christmas lights, the customers have found many additional, clever uses for the Lightning Switch. The majority of people have used it to install, replace, or rewire lighting controls without the hassle and cost of knocking holes in the walls and ceilings, or having to hire an electrician. The Lightning Switch installs in minutes and can save hundreds of dollars per switch in rewiring costs.

A popular use of the Lightning Switch is in leased or rental properties, where certain tenants may want a switch in one spot, while the next resident may want to have the switch elsewhere. With this device, both can be accommodated, and with no added expenditure by the landlord.

Other uses that customers have found for the device include a taxi-calling system for hotel bellmen; as a call-for-assistance system in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals; a control lift for the elderly or disabled; and a signal for a casino table dealer to call for drinks or additional chips.

In addition, it has been used as a notification system for doctors to indicate to nurses when they are ready for the next patient, to trigger lights on the end of a boat dock, as a safety alert for factory floors, in foot switches for wireless tattoo guns, and to control heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning elements.

Customers have found it helpful for controlling landscape lighting, fountains, and pumps for ponds, and as a safe electrical device in wet areas, such as by pools or hot tubs. Some have even planned to employ it for grounds security, with the transmitters packaged to be put in the ground, on doors, gates, and entryways, for permanent wireless and batteryless intruder alerts.

Design-oriented entrepreneurs at retail establishments have used the Lightning Switch as a control for store fixture lighting, while art collectors have used it for backlighting framed pieces. So, while it was being marketed in malls as a Christmas light switch, consumers saw even more potential.

Worker in a cleanroom at the plant in Taiwan
Worker in a cleanroom at the plant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where the piezoelectric elements are manufactured. The plant has the capability to produce tens of thousands of pieces per month.

During this test marketing phase, Brad Face, Face International president, had even larger plans. He was in negotiations to have a manufacturing plant erected to meet the growing need for this technology in additional applications. The new plant, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, opened in February 2005. It manufactures and assembles the Lightning Switch products as well as Lightning and Thunder piezoelectric elements. The manufacturing lines mainly consist of machinery that was designed and built for the express purpose of making these products. It gives Face International the capacity to produce 30,000 Lightning or Thunder piezoelectric elements, 30,000 Lightning transmitters, and 100,000 receivers each month. The capacity can be increased in increments of 30,000 by adding work shifts or duplicating the manufacturing line. With this capability, the company is prepared to respond to any demand.

There is a large demand developing for these products and not only in North America. Currently, Face International is in contract negotiations with housing development contractors in South Africa, where the Lightning products have the potential to save builders millions of dollars annually. Houses can be assembled quicker without electrical wiring to the switches, and at considerable savings of skilled labor and materials. The Lightning Switch can then be used to install switches in houses after construction.

Beyond the Lightning Switch, Face International has other applications of the NASA-invented piezoelectric element in development. Using the Thunder version of this piezoelectric product, Face International is working on improving hearing loss assessment technologies. Assessment of hearing loss is normally conducted by testing for minimum sound level detection. There are two forms of tests used for the basic evaluation of auditory function. The first, air-conduction testing, involves presenting precisely calibrated sounds to the ears, usually by routing the signals through headphones to the external ear canal. The second, bone-conduction testing, sends precisely calibrated vibrations through the bones of the skull to the inner ear system. Stimulation is received at the skull by placing a transducer either on the mastoid region behind the ear to be tested or through transducer placement on the forehead.

A man wearing hearing test equipment
Face International Corporation has partnered with the Hearing Center of the Hollins Communications Research Institute to create durable and accurate hearing test equipment using the NASA piezoelectric technology.

There has been a long-standing problem inherent in the construction and function of bone-conduction transducers used in auditory testing. Typically, these devices have been restricted in the usable frequency range, particularly above 4000 Hertz, and they have been limited in the amplitude with which sound can be presented to the skull. Bone-conduction transducers have relied on electromechanical components to generate the vibrations. Such transducers do not operate in a linear manner, and, as a result, individual audiometers must be calibrated to the idiosyncratic properties of the bone-conduction transducer to be used with that system. A further problem arises when the transducers are used on a daily basis. When dropped, the transducers frequently break or alter their output characteristics.

Researchers at the Hearing Center of the Hollins Communications Research Institute (HCRI), in Roanoke, Virginia, have been working on development of a new audiometric system for hearing assessment. They have partnered with Face International to create a new bone-conduction transducer that would overcome the major shortcomings of traditional transducers. The new transducers are the correct physical size, with the desired frequency range, linear operation across the relevant range, significant increases in power levels, and they come in a rugged package. The new HCRI/Face International bone-conduction transducers hold up to daily clinical use and even passed the informal stress tests of being dropped on the floor repeatedly.

Brad Face alludes to other applications, most of which are still in their infancy. But with the ability of the new manufacturing plant to create as many of the elements as he could need, and the myriad uses customers are finding for the technology, the applications are limitless.

Lightning® and Thunder® are registered trademarks of Face International Corporation.
Lightning Switch™ is a trademark of Face International Corporation.

Rocket-Powered Parachutes Rescue Entire Planes

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Parachute system
This BRS Aerospace Inc. parachute system, designed for sport aircraft, deploys its chute (contained in the white canister) in less than 1 second, thanks to a solid rocket motor (the black tube on top).

When Boris Popov was 8 years old, he took one of his mother’s sheets and some thread, made a parachute, climbed a tree, and jumped. The homemade chute did little to break Popov’s fall; his father took the disappointed boy aside and said, “Son, you’ve got to start higher.”

Years later in the mid-1970s, recent college graduate Popov was hang gliding over a lake when the boat that was towing him accelerated too quickly, ripping the control bar from his hands. Some 500 feet in the air, Popov’s glider went into a spiral, coming apart as Popov plummeted to the water. As he fell, Popov realized that if he only had some kind of parachute, he could have been saved. Before impact, he promised himself that, if he survived, he would create a solution that would save people in these types of emergency situations.

“BRS is
a classic
example of
taxpayers’ money being spent
on research
that has
translated into
246 lives saved.”

Decades later, the U.S. air transportation system was suffering its own kind of free fall. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 led to stringent security measures that complicated and slowed down air travel. Even as the industry recovered from the effects of the attacks, increased flights and passenger demand strained the National Airspace System (NAS) at levels never before experienced. At the same time, NASA was exploring ways of extending aviation to rural America using smaller general aviation (GA) aircraft and local community airports. The NASA Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) project envisioned an on-demand, point-to-point, widely distributed transportation system relying on small aircraft (4-10 passengers) operating out of the Nation’s more than 5,400 public-use landing facilities. With about 98 percent of the population living within 20 miles of at least one such airport, SATS could provide cheaper, faster, and more practical options for business and leisure travel, medical services, and package delivery.

Though the SATS project concluded its research in 2006, the pursuit of a nationwide GA transportation system continues through other initiatives like NASA’s Green Flight Centennial Challenge, scheduled for 2011, which encourages competing teams to maximize fuel efficiency for personal aircraft, as well as reduce noise and improve safety. Technological advances are still necessary, however, to make such a system viable, such as improving the safety of small aircraft. One solution has come in the form of an invention developed by Popov, who having survived his fall, began investigating methods of ballistically deploying parachutes for aircraft in emergency situations. Today, with the help of a NASA partnership, the parachute that Popov wished for when plunging to Earth is saving hundreds of small aircraft pilots from a similar fate.


Popov founded Ballistic Recovery Systems Inc. (now BRS Aerospace) of Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1980. He formed the company to commercialize his solution to personal aircraft accidents like the one he experienced: a whole aircraft parachute recovery system. Soon BRS was developing parachutes for hang gliders, ultralights, and experimental aircraft, and the company received Federal Aviation Administration certification for a retrofit system for the Cessna 150 GA airplane. The company’s innovative safety solution for small aircraft led to Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts with Langley Research Center aimed at advancing the BRS parachute system for use with larger and heavier GA aircraft. The NASA funding helped BRS with the development of thin-film parachutes, continuous reinforcement manufacturing methods that result in stronger parachutes, and smart deployment devices—all of which help overcome one of the main obstacles to whole-aircraft parachute systems for larger vehicles: reducing bulk and weight while maintaining parachute strength.

“You can’t have a 50-gallon drum full of parachute in the back of a Cessna. It’s not going to work,” Popov says. Just as important as the research and development funding for BRS, he says, was NASA’s support of its parachute system.

“One of our primary needs for working with NASA was to promote and encourage the concept of a ballistic parachute on aircraft,” Popov says. “There was a lot of skepticism that this system could even work. NASA was very proactive in creating a safety mentality in general aviation.”

Product Outcome

Parachute arresting the descent of an aircraft
With the help of NASA funding, BRS developed parachutes that have saved hundreds of small aircraft—and their pilots and passengers. Here, a Cirrus SR20’s parachute deploys at over 100 miles per hour, arresting the plane’s descent. BRS parachute systems are standard equipment on Cirrus aircraft.

The BRS parachute system—first featured in Spinoff 2002—is deployed by a solid rocket motor activated when the pilot pulls on the cockpit handle release. The rocket fires at over 100 miles per hour and extracts the parachute in less than 1 second. Thanks to a patented shock attenuation device, the chute opens according to the speed of the aircraft; at high speeds, the chute opens only 25 percent for the first few seconds to reduce airspeed to the point where the chute can open fully and still sustain the opening shock. (The lightweight parachute material has to sustain the force of the rocket deployment, as well as the force of the aircraft.) At low speeds and altitudes, the chute opens quickly and completely to ensure rescue.

The system’s versatility makes it effective in a range of accident situations, from mid-air collisions and structural failure to a spiral dive or stall spin. The parachute arrests the descent of the entire aircraft and deposits the vehicle and its occupants on the ground with a typical impact force equivalent to falling 7 feet, which is largely absorbed by the aircraft’s landing gear and seats. Not only are lives saved, but in many incidents, expensive aircraft are preserved to fly again.

BRS has sold more than 30,000 systems worldwide since its founding. The parachute is now standard equipment on the Cirrus SR20 and SR22 planes, the Flight Design CT light-sport aircraft (LSA), the Piper Aircraft PiperSport LSA, and as an option on the new Cessna 162 Skycatcher. The company is projecting sales of close to $20 million this year.

“Our system is standard equipment on the world’s top selling single-engine aircraft, Cirrus. It’s standard equipment on the world’s top selling LSA, the CT. The number one producer of ultralights has our product as standard equipment. You can see a trend here,” Popov says.

BRS also produces parachute systems for military unmanned aerial vehicles, military cargo parachutes, and military training aircraft recovery parachutes. On training aircraft, if the pilot has to eject, “you basically have a 5,000-pound bomb that could go unpiloted down into a neighborhood,” Popov says. “We, however, can bring down the pilot and trainer aircraft safely to the ground.”

While parachutes for larger aircraft are still in the works, BRS does have a system designed for small jets, and its NASA partnership has provided the company with the technology that may eventually enable parachutes for commercial airlines and jets. In the meantime, Popov welcomes the role NASA has played in helping turn the promise he made to himself that day at the lake into a reality for the 246 people whose lives have been saved by the BRS parachute so far.

“BRS is a classic example of taxpayers’ money being spent on research that has translated into 246 lives saved,” he says. “That’s a justifiable and profound benefit.”

He tells a favorite story about a grandfather flying a Cirrus SR20 over the Canadian Rockies with his grandkids in the back seat. The grandfather lost control of the plane, which became inverted at night in the mountains. “You’re likely not going to recover from that,” Popov says. The grandfather deployed the parachute, and the plane settled gently on the side of mountain, where a rescue helicopter found it the next day. After being hoisted out by a helicopter and flown to a nearby airstrip, they put on a new prop and landing gear and flew the plane out.

“This grandfather thought he may have just killed himself and his grandkids, but when he pulled the handle and felt the parachute deploy, he knew he had just prevented that from happening,” Popov says.

“How many millions of dollars is that worth?”


Dragon Delivers Science, Station Supplies

SpaceX-3 berthed to station
The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is berthed to the Earth-facing port of the International Space Station’s Harmony node.
Image Credit: 
SpaceX Dragon
This image of SpaceX Dragon grappled by Canadarm2 was sent down by Flight Engineer Steve Swanson to Instagram with the message, “We have a Dragon. All is good.”
Image Credit: 

The Expedition 39 crew welcomed nearly two and a half tons of supplies and scientific payloads to the International Space Station with the arrival of the third SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo spacecraft Sunday.

With Dragon securely in the grasp of Canadarm2, the robotics officer at Mission Control remotely operated the arm to install the capsule to its port on the Earth-facing side of the Harmony module. Once Dragon was in place, Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio monitored the Common Berthing Mechanism operations for first and second stage capture of the cargo ship, assuring that the vehicle was securely attached to the station with a hard mate. Second stage capture was completed at 10:06 a.m. EDT as the station flew 260 miles above Brazil.

Dragon was grappled at 7:14 a.m. as it flew within about 32 feet of the complex by Commander Koichi Wakata — with assistance from Mastracchio – as he controlled the 57-foot Canadarm2 from a robotics workstation inside the station’s cupola. Flight Engineer Steve Swanson joined his crewmates in the seven-windowed cupola to assist with the capture and help coordinate the activities. At the time of capture, the orbital laboratory was flying around 260 statute miles over Egypt, west of the Nile River.

Afterward, Wakata sent down his kudos to SpaceX and the ground teams as he remarked, “Congratulations to the entire ops team for the successful launch, rendezvous and capture operation. The vehicle, the spacecraft was very solid and very stable. And the Canadarm2 was really solid, and it made it easier for us to capture.”

Flight Director Matt Abbott monitors the approach of the SpaceX Dragon from a console in the International Space Station flight control room at Houston’s Mission Control Center.
Image Credit: 

The crew will spend much of the remainder of their workday pressurizing the vestibule between Dragon and the station and setting up power and data cables to prepare for the opening of Dragon’s hatch on Monday.

Filled with nearly 5,000 pounds of crew supplies and cargo to support more than 150 scientific investigations planned for Expeditions 39 and 40, Dragon is scheduled to spend four weeks attached to the station. The crew will reload the space freighter with about 3,600 pounds of experiment samples and hardware for return to Earth.

After Dragon’s mission at the station is completed, Mission Control Houston will remotely unberth Dragon from Harmony and maneuver it to the to the release point with Canadarm2, The station crew then will release Dragon for its parachute-assisted splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean.

Dragon launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 3:25 p.m. Friday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The SpaceX-3 mission is the company’s third cargo delivery flight to the station through a $1.6 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract.


Detectors Ensure Function, Safety of Aircraft Wiring

NASA Technology

Engineer testing wiring in the Space Shuttle Discovery
A NASA engineer tests wiring in the rear engine compartment of Space Shuttle Discovery. To pinpoint the location of faulty wires, a NASA contractor invented the Standing Wave Reflectometer.

Pedro Medelius waited patiently in his lab at Kennedy Space Center. He had just received word that a colleague was bringing over a cable from a Space Shuttle solid rocket booster to test Medelius’ new invention. Medelius was calm until his colleague arrived—with about 30 other people.

“Talk about testing under pressure,” says Medelius. “There were people there from the Navy, the Air Force, and the Federal Aviation Administration.”

After the group’s arrival, Medelius took a deep breath and connected his Standing Wave Reflectometer (SWR) to the cable. He wiggled the cable around, and the display showed a fault (a short or open circuit in wire) about an inch and a half inside the connector on the cable. His colleague questioned the results, because he had already checked that area on the cable. Medelius used the SWR to check again but got the same result. “That is when we took the cable apart and looked inside,” Medelius says. “Lo and behold, that was exactly where the fault was.”

The impetus for Medelius’ new wire inspection technology came about in 1999 when one of the space shuttles lost power due to a fault somewhere in its more than 200 miles of electrical wiring. “The backup circuit was activated and prevented a major dysfunction, but nevertheless, there was a problem with the wiring,” Medelius describes.

Even though technicians used a device called a multimeter to measure the electrical current to find which wire had a fault, it could not pinpoint exactly where on the wire the fault was located. For that, technicians had to visually inspect the wire.

“Sometimes they would have to remove the whole wire assembly and visually inspect every single wire. It was a very tedious operation because the wires are behind cabinets. They go all over the place in the shuttle,” says Medelius. “NASA needed an instrument capable of telling them exactly where the faults were occurring.”

To meet NASA’s needs for a highly precise device to inspect electrical power bundles, wires, and connectors, Medelius devised the SWR. “It came down to what was affected when a wire is short circuited or opened,” he says. “We worked out a few equations based on physical principles.” The SWR proved very sensitive, and the technology was patented.

Technology Transfer

Kennedy made the technology available for commercial licensing. Corona, California-based Eclypse International was immediately intrigued by the technology, due in part to the 1996 explosion and crash of TWA flight 800. Eclypse had worked with the White House-led Air Transport Safety and Rulemaking Committee on the investigation of the accident, which, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, was most likely caused by a short circuit in its wiring. Chris Teal, marketing director at the company, says, “We were trying to find a technology to test the wiring without being intrusive or destructive.”

After obtaining an exclusive license for the SWR, Eclypse refined the SWR for commercial use by incorporating an easy-to-use keypad and making the device more rugged. “The first version was hard plastic that shattered if you dropped it. We made it tough, so none of the connectors or casing would break if it fell,” says Teal.


Originally featured in Spinoff 2005, Eclypse has had many years of success with the NASA technology, which is now in widespread use by the military and commercial airlines, among others. As a small business that started with just 6 employees, Eclypse now employs approximately 30 people.

Helicopter maintenance
Eclypse International licensed NASA technology and then commercialized the EXP+ to identify the location of a fault down the path of wiring on aircraft, submarines, sea vessels, and helicopters. Here, a HH-60G Air Force Special Operations Command intercommunications subsystem is tested.

Called ESP+, Eclypse’s spinoff technology takes less than 5 seconds to locate a fault. “It’s the fastest and easiest to use hand-held wire tester available today,” says Teal.

“It is comforting to know that what 
we did helped to make flight safer.”

—Pedro Medelius, 
Kennedy Space Center

Available as a standalone piece of equipment or as part of Eclypse’s Electrical Component Analysis System (ECAS), ESP+ provides step-by-step instructions to guide a user on the type and location of an electrical wiring fault.

“Mechanics who have never touched wiring can now fix it,” says Teal. “All they have to do is start the test, and in a matter of seconds, it will tell them where the fault is within 18 inches. Electrical checks that used to take two folks 8 hours can now be done in 45 minutes with one person.”

According to the company, the US Army purchased 300 ESP+ devices to include in their helicopter battle damage and assessment repair kits. In addition, one of the military programs using ECAS reported a savings of $2.19 million on development costs.

ESP+ is currently employed throughout the United States and abroad to check the health of wiring in commercial and military aircraft, submarines, sea vessels, and even presidential helicopters. A sampling of commercial customers includes Sikorsky, Boeing, Raytheon, Qantas Airlines, United Airlines, Continental Airlines, American Airlines, and FedEx. Military customers include the United States Navy, the United States Marine Corps, Australian Defense, the South Korean Army, the Spanish Navy, and Portuguese Air Forces.

In the future, Eclypse plans to promote its technology for routine maintenance of system wiring. “Our core technology and philosophy is to handle the electrical from the date it is put in service to the date of its retirement,” says Teal. The company also aims to attract the interest of networking and mainframe distribution entities and similar complex electrical industries to help ensure normal operations for their electrical wiring.

Today, Medelius says he appreciates seeing how NASA technology helps not only NASA, but everybody—even himself. “I fly a lot, and it is comforting to know that what we did helped to make flight safer. It’s a good feeling, not only as an engineering accomplishment, but from a personal standpoint.”