By Jeff Karoub
Small Times Staff Writer

June 25, 2001 — Keeping the load light and cost low will be critical for any future mission to Mars, and researchers say the secrets lie in small tech.

MEMS, microsystems and nanotechnology will help solve problems associated with heat, propulsion, communications and electronics – the biggest hitches to pulling off such a mission, say researchers, business leaders and officials with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Although such a trip with astronauts remains at least 20 years away, small tech research and development play a large role in robotic and satellite missions to Mars, Earth’s orbit and other points in space – all of which paves the way for full-fledged spacecraft.

“We’re all going smaller as fast as the technology will allow,” said Robert Norwood, NASA’s director of commercial technology.

“Certainly, MEMS technology … improves efficiency and reduces the size of things needed to sustain human life. We could expect to send precursors to investigate certain landing sites. All of these things, no doubt, will depend on advanced technology.”

Spectrum Astro Inc. in Gilbert, Ariz., uses MEMS in its PicoSat, a tiny satellite mounted to a larger satellite that trouble-shoots for its host. The technology was used in a satellite developed for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, and Spectrum seeks to use similar technology in a project for the Air Force’s Space Test Programs Organization, said David Olschansky, the Spectrum’s director for NASA and civil programs.

The latter project, currently under review by the Air Force, would use MEMS technologies in multichip modules to measure radiation tolerance and sensitivities, areas that will benefit future space exploration, he said.

“We are definitely leap-frogging computer power and capability,” Olschansky said.

Other companies are working with NASA on developing MEMS-based systems for space. The agency’s Glennan Microsystems Initiative links researchers with industries making or needing microsystems.

One of those is Makel Engineering Inc., a Chico, Calif.-based sensor manufacturer whose hydrogen sensor has been used in the Space Shuttle Discovery. It also is working on building devices with silicon carbide, a durable material made to withstand the harsh environment of space.

According to NASA, objects in direct sunlight near the Earth and the moon can heat up to temperatures of 121 degrees Celsius. In the shade, objects can cool down to -156 degrees Celsius.


University researchers also are devising MEMS and microsystems that will power future spacecraft.

The Angstroem Space Technology Center at Sweden’s Uppsala University is developing a cold gas micropropulsion system, which could be used in high-performance micro and nanosatellites. The center also is devising a three-dimensional multichip module, which increases the packing density of electronics without sacrificing performance.

The goal of each project is miniaturization, said Lars Stenmark, an Angstroem researcher who recently attended the Transducers 01 Conference in Munich, Germany.

“With every kilogram sent to Mars costing upwards of $1 million, the potential of sending a fully integrated spacecraft weighing a few tens of kilograms instead of the thousands of kilos offers significant monetary benefits,” he said.

Stenmark said the development of microsystem technology in spacecraft historically has been hampered by a strict redundancy code, which means there is always at least one spare system that could immediately take over the tasks of a broken device.

Small tech, however, allows for the creation of parallel functional cells. Distribution of many small, parallel units, mechanically isolated from each other, reduces the risk of severe damage from internal failures or collisions with space objects.


Micro and nanotechnology won’t end with the spacecraft.

ILC Dover Inc. in Delaware, which has designed and developed space suits for NASA for more than three decades, is investigating the possibility of developing an advanced suit that would be self-repairing in the event of a rip. Nanoscale devices coating the surface of the suit’s fabric one day could be programmed with a code that directs a sealant to the punctured area.

Phil Spampinato, ILC Dover’s product manager, said the possibilities are intriguing but still a long way from production.

That hasn’t stopped researchers from dreaming. Spampinato said papers have been published on the subject of the use of nanotechnology in space exploration, including space suits.

“It’s pretty far out there,” he said. “Nanotechnology is an area we are going to be involved in, and must have some background in. But … we have no idea right now of a near-term application for it.”

Despite the hurdles, NASA is convinced the research and development of small tech today will pay off in two or three decades, when astronauts suit up for a rendezvous with the red planet.

“Small technology – making big systems out of small pieces – those concepts are going to play a very significant role in future human exploration,” said John Mankins, manager of advanced concept studies for NASA’s Human Exploration and Development of Space division.

(Small Times Correspondent Alfred Vollmer in Munich also contributed to this report.)


Jeff Karoub at [email protected].


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