NASA to put sensor in latest black boxes

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May 23, 2005 – NASA is using nanotechnology to guide near-term explorations of the moon and eventual trips to Mars.

A joint project of NASA and El Segundo, Calif.-based Aerospace Corp. will develop a “black box” that uses nanosensors weighing a few grams. The nanosenors will be used to gather data about flight vehicles re-entering the earth’s atmosphere from space. After the perilous high-speed part of re-entry, the black box will “phone home” and relay data by satellite prior to impact with land or sea. The black box will be especially useful in the event of what NASA scientists call an “uncontrolled re-entry.”

“The black box is a companion spacecraft that is attached to the main spacecraft and there could be more than one,” said Dan Rasky, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. “It’s designed with a heat shield to be able to survive a re-entry and take data of interest at re-entry, such as vehicle position or temperature.”

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Unlike a commercial aviation black box, the NASA black box or Re-entry Breakup Recorder (REBR) does not need to be retrieved. The REBR weighs about 2.2 pounds.

Nanotechnology offers advantages critical to next-generation space travel, Rasky said. “The challenges we have with a small spacecraft are power and mass,” Rasky explained. Nanotechnology solutions are lightweight and low power. “There are a number of nanotechnology uses involving batteries with greatly improved performance and duty cycles.”

Nanotechnology may also help bring mission control onboard, rather than being located at an external command base. “Using MEMS and sensors, you could do much more powerful onboard computing, instead of going to the ground,” said Jim Arnold, a scientist with the NASA Ames Center for Nanotechnology. “We’d like to minimize the time for communicating back and forth (to a ground station) and going to onboard computing would be a natural.”

NASA is aiming for a prototype test of the REBR by summer of 2006 aboard an expendable Delta II rocket. Should the REBR test prove fruitful, NASA has plans to use nanotechnology in missions to the moon and Mars. Nanosensors would be packed into small spheres to be used with the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), the space ship NASA will develop as a replacement for the shuttle. President George W. Bush announced a demonstration flight of the CEV by 2008, with manned flight slated for 2014.

Other probes could be used as scouts that “light up” landing spots for spacecraft, or to act as an advance scout for spacecraft in unfamiliar territory. “For a moon landing, you could send them to scout the area,” Rasky said. “In the Apollo program, we were restricted to a daylight landing so we wouldn’t land on a rock. Radio beacons sent from nanoprobes would let the crew vehicle know where they are. You wouldn’t be flying blind.”

Nanotechnology also comes into play for flights involving “aero capture,” or entry into an unfamiliar atmosphere. Aero capture technology uses planetary atmosphere to alter the velocity of a vehicle. The incoming spacecraft makes a single pass deep into the atmosphere to establish an orbit, without the use of fuel. This method could reduce the typical mass of an interplanetary spacecraft by half, allowing for smaller, less expensive vehicles. At high altitudes, the atmosphere can vary considerably due to seasonal changes.

“A scout probe would go ahead (of the spacecraft) and get data on pressure and density (of the atmosphere), and establish a flight corridor to fly through to keep the vehicle stable and reduce the risk on an aero capture mission,” Rasky said.


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