News Article | February 15, 2017
When the Wright brothers accomplished their first powered flight more than a century ago, they controlled the motion of their Flyer 1 aircraft using wires and pulleys that bent and twisted the wood-and-canvas wings. This system was quite different than the separate, hinged flaps and ailerons that have performed those functions on most aircraft ever since. But now, thanks to some high-tech wizardry developed by engineers at MIT and NASA, some aircraft may be returning to their roots, with a new kind of bendable, “morphing” wing. The new wing architecture, which could greatly simplify the manufacturing process and reduce fuel consumption by improving the wing’s aerodynamics, as well as improving its agility, is based on a system of tiny, lightweight subunits that could be assembled by a team of small specialized robots, and ultimately could be used to build the entire airframe. The wing would be covered by a “skin” made of overlapping pieces that might resemble scales or feathers. The new concept is described in the journal Soft Robotics, in a paper by Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA); Benjamin Jenett, a CBA graduate student; Kenneth Cheung PhD ’12, a CBA alumnus and NASA research scientist; and four others. A test version of the deformable wing designed by the MIT and NASA researchers is shown undergoing its twisting motions, which could replace the need for separate, hinged panels for controlling a plane's motion. (Kenneth Cheung/NASA) Researchers have been trying for many years to achieve a reliable way of deforming wings as a substitute for the conventional, separate, moving surfaces, but all those efforts “have had little practical impact,” Gershenfeld says. The biggest problem was that most of these attempts relied on deforming the wing through the use of mechanical control structures within the wing, but these structures tended to be so heavy that they canceled out any efficiency advantages produced by the smoother aerodynamic surfaces. They also added complexity and reliability issues. By contrast, Gershenfeld says, “We make the whole wing the mechanism. It’s not something we put into the wing.” In the team’s new approach, the whole shape of the wing can be changed, and twisted uniformly along its length, by activating two small motors that apply a twisting pressure to each wingtip. This approach to the manufacture of aircraft, and potentially other technologies, is such a new idea that “I think we can say it is a philosophical revolution, opening the gate to disruptive innovation,” says Vincent Loubiere, a lead technologist for emerging technologies and concepts at Airbus, who was not directly involved in this research. He adds that “the perspectives and fields this approach opens are thrilling.” The basic principle behind the new concept is the use of an array of tiny, lightweight structural pieces, which Gershenfeld calls “digital materials,” that can be assembled into a virtually infinite variety of shapes, much like assembling a structure from Lego blocks. The assembly, performed by hand for this initial experiment, could be done by simple miniature robots that would crawl along or inside the structure as it took shape. The team has already developed prototypes of such robots. The individual pieces are strong and stiff, but the exact choice of the dimensions and materials used for the pieces, and the geometry of how they are assembled, allow for a precise tuning of the flexibility of the final shape. For the initial test structure, the goal was to allow the wing to twist in a precise way that would substitute for the motion of separate structural pieces (such as the small ailerons at the trailing edges of conventional wings), while providing a single, smooth aerodynamic surface. Building up a large and complex structure from an array of small, identical building blocks, which have an exceptional combination of strength, light weight, and flexibility, greatly simplifies the manufacturing process, Gershenfeld explains. While the construction of light composite wings for today’s aircraft requires large, specialized equipment for layering and hardening the material, the new modular structures could be rapidly manufactured in mass quantities and then assembled robotically in place. Gershenfeld and his team have been pursuing this approach to building complex structures for years, with many potential applications for robotic devices of various kinds. For example, this method could lead to robotic arms and legs whose shapes could bend continuously along their entire length, rather than just having a fixed number of joints. This research, says Cheung, “presents a general strategy for increasing the performance of highly compliant — that is, ‘soft’ — robots and mechanisms,” by replacing conventional flexible materials with new cellular materials “that are much lower weight, more tunable, and can be made to dissipate energy at much lower rates” while having equivalent stiffness. While exploring possible applications of this nascent technology, Gershenfeld and his team consulted with NASA engineers and others seeking ways to improve the efficiency of aircraft manufacturing and flight. They learned that “the idea that you could continuously deform a wing shape to do pure lift and roll has been a holy grail in the field, for both efficiency and agility,” he says. Given the importance of fuel costs in both the economics of the airline industry and that sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, even small improvements in fuel efficiency could have a significant impact. Wind-tunnel tests of this structure showed that it at least matches the aerodynamic properties of a conventional wing, at about one-tenth the weight. The “skin” of the wing also enhances the structure’s performance. It’s made from overlapping strips of flexible material, layered somewhat like feathers or fish scales, allowing for the pieces to move across each other as the wing flexes, while still providing a smooth outer surface. The modular structure also provides greater ease of both assembly and disassembly: One of this system’s big advantages, in principle, Gershenfeld says, is that when it’s no longer needed, the whole structure can be taken apart into its component parts, which can then be reassembled into something completely different. Similarly, repairs could be made by simply replacing an area of damaged subunits. “An inspection robot could just find where the broken part is and replace it, and keep the aircraft 100 percent healthy at all times,” says Jenett. Following up on the successful wind tunnel tests, the team is now extending the work to tests of a flyable unpiloted aircraft, and initial tests have shown great promise, Jenett says. “The first tests were done by a certified test pilot, and he found it so responsive that he decided to do some aerobatics.” Some of the first uses of the technology may be to make small, robotic aircraft — “super-efficient long-range drones,” Gershenfeld says, that could be used in developing countries as a way of delivering medicines to remote areas. “Ultralight, tunable, aeroelastic structures and flight controls open up whole new frontiers for flight,” says Gonzalo Rey, chief technology officer for Moog Inc., a precision aircraft motion-controls company, who was not directly involved in this work, though he has collaborated with the team. “Digital materials and fabrication are a fundamentally new way to make things and enable the conventionally impossible. The digital morphing wing article demonstrates the ability to resolve in depth the engineering challenges necessary to apply the concept.” Rey adds that “The broader potential in this concept extends directly to skyscrapers, bridges, and space structures, providing not only improved performance and survivability but also a more sustainable approach by achieving the same strength while using, and reusing, substantially less raw material.” And Loubiere, from Airbus, suggests that many other technologies could also benefit from this method, including wind turbines: “Simply enabling the assembly of the windmill blades on the spot, instead of using complex and fuel-consuming transport, would enhance greatly the cost and overall performance,” he says. The research team also included graduate students Sam Calisch at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms; Daniel Cellucci at Cornell University; Nick Cramer at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and researcher Sean Swei at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The work was supported by the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute Team Seeding Program, the NASA ARMD Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Program, and the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship program.
News Article | February 23, 2017
A national lab and NASA are working together with X-ray and 3D visualization technologies to create materials to utilize in space. The goal of the collaboration— between NASA and a science group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—is to establish a suite of tools that includes X-ray imaging and small laboratory experiments, computer-based analysis and simulation tools, as well as large-scale high heat and wind-tunnel tests, to allow for rapid development of new materials with established performance and reliability in space. This system can heat sample materials to thousands of degrees and subject them to a mixture of different gases found in other planets’ atmospheres—with pistons stretching the materials to their breaking points— all while imagining in real time their 3D behavior at the microstructure level. For humans to explore Mars and other large-payload missions, a new type of heat shield that is flexible and can remain folded up until needed is likely required. An initial X-ray study has been deemed successful and led to a renewed interest in exploring the use of X-ray experiments to guide a better understanding of meteorite breakup. Scientists are using data from these experiments in risk analysis and aid in assessing threats posed by large asteroids. Michael Barnhardt, a senior research scientist at NASA ARC and principal investigator of the Entry Systems Modeling Project, explained that the research led to a better understanding of what was going on at the microscale. “Before this collaboration, we didn’t understand what was happening at the microscale,” Barnhardt said in a statement. “We didn’t have a way to test it. “X-rays gave us a way to peek inside the material and get a view we didn’t have before,” he added. “With this understanding, we will be able to design new materials with properties tailored to a certain mission.” According to Barnhardt, this basis will build more predictive models, reduce risk and provide more assurance about a new material’s performance even at initial stages. Researchers at Berkeley are testing several candidates for a flexible heat shield in addition to fabrics for Mars-mission parachutes that can be deployed at supersonic speeds, using Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS) and with other techniques. “We are developing a system at the ALS that can simulate all material loads and stresses over the course of the atmospheric entry process,” Harold Barnard, a scientist at Berkeley Lab’s ALS who is spearheading the Lab’s X-ray work with NASA, said in a statement. A group of researchers at NASA Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) can blast materials with a giant superhot blowtorch that accelerates hot air to velocities topping 11,000 miles per hour, with temperatures exceeding that of the surface of the Sun. The scientists also test parachutes and spacecraft at their wind-tunnel facilities, which can produce supersonic wind speeds faster than 1,900 miles per hour. While it takes rocket science to launch and fly spacecraft’s, an understanding of how materials perform under extreme conditions is also needed to enter and land on planets with different atmospheres. X-ray science is also necessary in ensuring spacecrafts survive in extreme environments as they descent through otherworldly atmospheres and touch down safely on foreign surfaces. Francesco Panerai, a materials scientist with NASA contractor AMA Inc. and the X-ray experiments test lead for NASA ARC, said the aim is to modernize how scientists produce and study materials. “We need to use modern measurement techniques to improve our understanding of material response,” Panerai said in a statement. The experiments are being conducted at an ALS experimental station that captures a sequence of images as a sample is rotated in front of an X-ray beam. These images, which provide views inside the samples and can resolve details less than one micron or one millionth of a meter, can be compiled to form detailed 3D images and animations of samples.
News Article | February 23, 2017
Lower airspace isn’t crowded with drones quite yet. But as drones become more pervasive, a startup called AirMap is building software and systems to help drone operators fly only where it’s safe and legal to do so. The task will prove completely different from that of managing airliners as we do today, says AirMap CEO and cofounder Ben Marcus who is also serving as the co-chair for the FAA’s Industry Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team. “There are about 10,000 airplane flights happening at once on any given day. Human beings are able to manage all the traffic. But that won’t scale to manage millions of drones and billions of flights.” There are already an estimated 100,000 drone flights taking place per day. Additionally, drones are becoming more and more autonomous. When they are technologically and legally able to fly without a human pilot monitoring them at every moment, AirMap wants to be able to feed them information about the safest routes to fly, taking into consideration not just static rules, terrain and obstacles, but shifting traffic conditions, weather, temporary flight restrictions and more. The company offers an app directly to drone users that can help them plan a safe flight. But more importantly, AirMap works with drone makers, regulators and airports who use the startup’s systems to understand where drones are flying, and to ping them or geofence and bar them from flying where it’s not safe for them to be. Marcus said 80% of the worlds’ drones are using AirMap today for geofencing and to alert operators of airspace conditions. Drone makers who have integrated AirMap’s technology into their products include Yuneec, a new investor in AirMap, industry leaders DJI, Intel, AeryonLabs and others. Today, AirMap announced that it has raised $26 million in a Series B round of venture funding led by Microsoft Ventures to build out its airspace and air traffic management platforms. Microsoft was joined by other strategic backers from across the drone industry including: Airbus Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, Rakuten, Sony, and Yuneec. AirMap’s earlier backers, General Catalyst and Lux Capital, also participated. AirMap intends to use the funding to open new offices and further develop its airspace management and air traffic management systems, and to open new offices around the world. With headquarters remaining in Santa Monica, AirMap is planning specifically to open an office in Berlin, and another offices at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Airbus Ventures CEO Thomas d’Halluin said, “There’s so much congestion on roads, and the world population is growing. The organization of airspace will define the future of mobility and help solve that problem of congestion. But you cannot fly people and things without safety first. The drone industry started out with people flying their toys in their own little corner. What AirMap introduces is a flow of accurate information that lets them see and communicate about critical issues so they can fly wherever they need to. They can know don’t fly this area, you’re not the priority here please move aside, or you’re good here, fly safely.” He said investors expect AirMap to use its funding to make its systems better-known to all players in and around the drone industry. “The next stage is about showing the world we will be safer if we deploy AirMap technology, and work together to share information and regulate all these new flying objects in lower airspace.”
News Article | February 23, 2017
The venture capital arms of Qualcomm Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Airbus have led a $26-million investment in AirMap, the builder of drone air traffic management software announced Thursday. The Santa Monica start-up, which opened its first office in 2015, builds technology that tracks air traffic, weather and flight restrictions in real time to guide unmanned aerial vehicles. AirMap says its software supports more than 100,000 flights a day. Drones are among the hottest emerging technologies, with companies including Amazon, AT&T and a variety of start-ups betting that the vehicles will play a greater role in the economy as their technology improves and regulations allow for increased use and, eventually, autonomous flight. “Drones are proving their value today, but this is just the beginning,” AirMap co-founders Ben Marcus and Gregory McNeal said in a blog post about the investment. “We’re looking forward to quickly bringing AirMap’s airspace management platform and solutions for cybersecurity, geofencing, Unmanned aircraft Traffic Management … and more to new markets worldwide,” the co-founders said, adding that the company is opening offices in Berlin and at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Other investors in the funding round are Sony, Rakuten and Chinese drone builder Yuneec. AirMap said the funding round brought its financing to more than $43 million. Trump's promise to ramp up deportations spreads fear — among California businesses SpaceX Dragon brings supplies (and a birthday treat) to the International Space Station Mega-mansions in this L.A. suburb used to sell to Chinese buyers in days. Now they sit empty for months
News Article | February 20, 2017
(Artist concept, interior) The Modular Supercomputing Facility (MSF) at Ames uses fan technology that consumes less than 10% of the energy used by mechanical refrigeration in traditional supercomputing centers. Credit: NASA/Marco Librero Though there's been some recent relief in California's long-standing drought, water conservation techniques continue to be a hot topic for facilities that require significant amounts of water for day-to-day operations. The task of powering up and cooling down a high-end computing facility consumes large amounts of electricity and water. NASA is adopting new conservation practices with a prototype modular supercomputing facility at the agency's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The system, called Electra, is expected to save about 1,300,000 gallons of water and a million kilowatt-hours of energy each year, equal to the annual energy usage of about 90 households. "This is a different way for NASA to do supercomputing in a cost-effective manner," said Bill Thigpen, chief of the Advanced Computing Branch at Ames' NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility. "It makes it possible for us to be flexible and add computing resources as needed, and we can save about $35 million dollars—about half the cost of building another big facility." One of the benefits of the Electra system is its flexibility, through container modules that can be easily added or removed in sections without disrupting operations. NASA is already considering an expansion of up to 16 times the current capability of the modular environment to keep up with the requests for supercomputing time needed to support NASA researchers. Scientists and engineers around the country can log into Electra to use its high-performance computing for their research supporting NASA missions. In doing so, they will significantly reduce the impact on the environment, compared to using traditional supercomputers. "One of NASA's key science goals is to expand our knowledge of Earth systems," said Thigpen. "So we have a responsibility to do our part to lessen the impact of our technologies on the environment over the long term." The reduced use of water and energy resources does not lessen the system's capability. The Electra system will provide users an additional 280 million hours of computing time per year, according to Thigpen. It already ranks 39th in the U.S. on the TOP500 list of the most powerful computer systems. Users of the system say it's faster and easier to run jobs in the heavily utilized NAS computing environment, where time using the agency's most powerful supercomputer, Pleiades, is always in demand. The Modular Supercomputing Facility was built and installed by NASA partners SGI/CommScope and is managed by the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division at Ames.
News Article | March 1, 2017
A self-portrait taken by the NASA rover Curiosity in Gale Crater on Mars. —Is there – or was there ever – life on Mars? NASA has spent decades investigating the question with orbiters and rovers, including its upcoming Mars 2020 rover, but at least one scientist suspects he already knows the answer. According to Gibert Levin, NASA probably detected microbial life on Mars in 1976. Dr. Levin was one of the scientists involved with the Viking lander, whose biological experiments gave conflicting results when samples tested positive for metabolism but negative for organic molecules. Scientists at the time agreed that what looked like biological signs must have resulted instead from natural processes, but after decades of follow-up research recreating the Martian experiments in hostile landscapes such as Antarctica and the Atacama Desert, combined with a better understanding of Mars as well as the durability of life on Earth, Levin has a different hypothesis: The unreliable organic molecule experiment was the one that failed, and the metabolism detection succeeded. The continued debate surrounding the interpretation of a four-decade-old experiment highlights the challenges of looking for life, or its fossilized remains, with indirect experiments conducted by robots a world away. "We're not looking for skeletons. We're looking for fossil microbes — if [Mars] life did indeed go extinct," said Ellen Stofan, then NASA’s chief scientist, at a conference last year. "And those are going to be hard to find." NASA rovers Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have made astounding discoveries in their combined 27 years of Martian exploration, including signs of an ancient ocean, flowing water, as well as the active organic molecules that eluded Viking, but while the machines have significantly expanded experts’ understanding of Mars as a warmer, wetter world that once had the conditions for life, we are arguably no closer to finding smoking-gun evidence of microbes than Viking was in the mid-1970s. Dr. Stofan suggested conclusive proof may have to wait until someone can get actual humans, with their superior programming and higher bandwidth, out to investigate in person. "I strongly believe we will never settle this question of determining whether or not there's life on Mars unless we get human scientists down onto the surface of the Red Planet," she said. Part of the mission of Curiosity, a rover currently traipsing around Mars, is to search for organic molecules using a suite of onboard tools known collectively as SAM: the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument. SAM can take in Martian soil and rocks, vaporize them, and sniff the results for life-friendly elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Samples of mudstone from the Gale Crater did succeed in detecting the first organics on Mars, but disappointingly sparse results suggest that deep under the surface may be a more fruitful place to hunt. “‘Slim pickings’ would be a generous description of the organic results,” says Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center. “These mudstones should have been dripping with organics. Apparently the combination of cosmic rays and perchlorate (probably also caused by cosmic rays) has bleached out the organics. Hence the need to get deep below the level that cosmic rays reach and look for organics there,” he explains to The Christian Science Monitor in an email. But that’s not where NASA is headed. The next-generation Mars 2020 rover, whose three finalist sites were recently announced, will carry only “in situ” experiments that study the Martian surface in a variety of ways. “[Mars] 2020 will not do onboard sample analysis such as SAM on Curiosity. This is a big step backward for science in my view,” says Dr. McKay. While NASA calls Mars 2020 “the first rover mission designed to seek signs of past microbial life,” the fact is that just like Curiosity, even if it scooped up a soil sample teeming with microbes, it might not realize it, according to McKay. “None of the instruments on Mars 2020 is capable of life detection. They are capable of organic detection for high concentrations (Earth-like) of organics,” he writes. That’s not to say that remote detection is impossible, rather it’s a complicated process currently out of reach. McKay outlines a potential five step plan for clinching the existence of life on Mars: We’re currently working on the first one, but none of the shallow samples Curiosity has accessed has had enough organic material to proceed to step two. Preparing samples for return is a potential goal of Mars 2020, but because they will be from very shallow material, McKay doubts “there will be much interest in going back to Mars to pick up these samples.” But if the goal is to scratch the surface of the Red Planet, the robots are making steady progress. Sojourner carried cameras, Spirit and Opportunity had a Rock Abrasion Tool for scraping surfaces, and NASA equipped Curiosity with a drill capable of digging down 2.5 inches into Martian rock. In this sense, it’s the 2020 European EXOMars rover, which McKay calls “a much more interesting astrobiology mission” with its 2-meter drill that may be the next lander in this spiritual line of succession. Nevertheless he’s quick to point out that there’s plenty of great science to go around, even if it isn’t necessarily biological. “Certainly [Mars 2020] will be a great technology demonstration and it will be fun to have another big rover on Mars. The pictures of rocks are priceless.” Getting boots on the ground, however, could be a game changer. When it comes to exploration, humans have a number of advantages over robots that could simplify basically every part of that five-step plan. “The biggest advantage of future astronauts in terms of astrobiology is the ability to do deep drilling. The future of life search on Mars has to be with samples from deep underground,” explains McKay. They’d also be on-site for analysis, rather than having to fly samples back to Earth. What’s more, humans are a lot more versatile, both mentally and physically. The Apollo astronauts covered dozens of miles in days on the lunar surface, a feat that took Opportunity the better part of a decade on Mars. Astronauts can also recognize promising sites quickly, improvise new on-the-spot plans, and implement them with no time lag. Of course, McKay points out that all that intelligence, speed, and flexibility comes at a price. “They eat and breathe constantly and want to come home when it’s all over. That’s expensive.” Ultimately, no matter how rich in organics or “biosignatures” a sample may be, there’s no substitute for hands-on testing, either on Mars or here at home. And if NASA has to go through all the effort of transporting something between the two planets, some suggest it might as well be people, not only for a conclusive answer to the question raised 40 years ago by the Viking experiment, but for what it would mean to humanity. Human exploration of Mars is "definitely worth it in my view, but not because of science," says McKay. "Humans are worth it because humans are what it all about in the final analysis. Science is just a preparatory tool.”
News Article | January 30, 2017
Launching rockets into space is an expensive endeavor but rocket failure could result in failed launches and even costly and potentially fatal accidents. Last December, Russia's Progress MS-04 space cargo crashed on its way to the International Space Station. The investigation later revealed issues with the Proton-M rocket prompting Russian authorities to ground the Proton space rockets for three and a half months. Rockets can make or break space missions. To improve the performance of rockets, NASA has turned to pressure-sensitive paints. NASA aerospace researchers used the high-tech paint called Unsteady PSP (pressure-sensitive paint) in a state-of-the-art aerodynamics test to measure the fluctuating pressure forces that affect aircraft and spacecraft. NASA explained that aircraft and spacecraft should both be designed to withstand the dynamic forces called buffeting. Otherwise, there is risk of being shaken into pieces. Unsteady PSP, which produces a bright crimson glow in the presence of high-pressure airflow, allowed researchers to precisely measure these fluctuating forces. The paint works by reacting with oxygen to generate light. Differences in pressure produce variations in the amount of oxygen that interacts with the painted surface causing variations in the intensity of light emitted. The changes in the paint allow researchers to visualize where the changing forces apply on the rocket as it accelerates. The different pressures are visualized as colors. Red means higher than average pressure and blue means lower than average pressures. "It's full of tiny pores that let the air flowing over the model come into contact with a greater surface area of the paint. This allows oxygen to react more quickly with the paint, yielding more accurate data on the fluctuating pressures affecting planes and rockets during flight," NASA explained in a statement. During simulated flights of a model of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in a wind tunnel at NASA's Ames Research Center, cameras recorded images that researchers combined to know the pressure everywhere on the model vehicle. SLS is the world's most powerful rocket and is set to carry NASA's Orion spacecraft on missions to an asteroid and to planet Mars. Ensuring that the rocket works properly and efficiently would be a step closer to a successful manned mission to the Red Planet. The technology allowed researchers to capture measurements fast enough to catch up with the rapidly changing pressure load over the entirety of the model vehicle's surface. The data offered a first step in a better understanding of how the structure of a vehicle will respond to buffet in flights and minimize impacts through design. The paint, which is sprayed on in a thin layer, can also speed up and lower costs of SLS tests. "We learned from this test that this method is what you need to study buffet," said Jim Ross, an aerospace engineer in the Experimental Aero-Physics Branch at Ames. "There's a lot we don't understand about unsteady flow that this paint will help us figure out." © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | February 21, 2017
Note: This is the first installment in a four-part series that focuses on a partnership between NASA and Berkeley Lab to explore spacecraft materials and meteorites with X-rays in microscale detail. It takes rocket science to launch and fly spacecraft to faraway planets and moons, but a deep understanding of how materials perform under extreme conditions is also needed to enter and land on planets with atmospheres. X-ray science is playing a key role, too, in ensuring future spacecraft survive in extreme environments as they descend through otherworldly atmospheres and touch down safely on the surface. Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and NASA are using X-rays to explore, via 3-D visualizations, how the microscopic structures of spacecraft heat shield and parachute materials survive extreme temperatures and pressures, including simulated atmospheric entry conditions on Mars. Human exploration of Mars and other large-payload missions may require a new type of heat shield that is flexible and can remain folded up until needed. Candidate materials for this type of flexible heat shield, in addition to fabrics for Mars-mission parachutes deployed at supersonic speeds, are being tested with X-rays at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS) and with other techniques. “We are developing a system at the ALS that can simulate all material loads and stresses over the course of the atmospheric entry process,” said Harold Barnard, a scientist at Berkeley Lab’s ALS who is spearheading the Lab’s X-ray work with NASA. The success of the initial X-ray studies has also excited interest from the planetary defense scientific community looking to explore the use of X-ray experiments to guide our understanding of meteorite breakup. Data from these experiments will be used in risk analysis and aid in assessing threats posed by large asteroids. The ultimate objective of the collaboration is to establish a suite of tools that includes X-ray imaging and small laboratory experiments, computer-based analysis and simulation tools, as well as large-scale high-heat and wind-tunnel tests. These allow for the rapid development of new materials with established performance and reliability. This system can heat sample materials to thousands of degrees, subject them to a mixture of different gases found in other planets’ atmospheres, and with pistons stretch the material to its breaking point, all while imaging in real time their 3-D behavior at the microstructure level. NASA Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) in California’s Silicon Valley has traditionally used extreme heat tests at its Arc Jet Complex to simulate atmospheric entry conditions. Researchers at ARC can blast materials with a giant superhot blowtorch that accelerates hot air to velocities topping 11,000 miles per hour, with temperatures exceeding that at the surface of the sun. Scientists there also test parachutes and spacecraft at its wind-tunnel facilities, which can produce supersonic wind speeds faster than 1,900 miles per hour. Michael Barnhardt, a senior research scientist at NASA ARC and principal investigator of the Entry Systems Modeling Project, said the X-ray work opens a new window into the structure and strength properties of materials at the microscopic scale, and expands the tools and processes NASA uses to “test drive” spacecraft materials before launch. “Before this collaboration, we didn’t understand what was happening at the microscale. We didn’t have a way to test it,” Barnhardt said. “X-rays gave us a way to peak inside the material and get a view we didn’t have before. With this understanding, we will be able to design new materials with properties tailored to a certain mission.” He added, “What we’re trying to do is to build the basis for more predictive models. Rather than build and test and see if it works,” the X-ray work could reduce risk and provide more assurance about a new material’s performance even at the drawing-board stage. Francesco Panerai, a materials scientist with NASA contractor AMA Inc. and the X-ray experiments test lead for NASA ARC, said that the X-ray experiments at Berkeley Lab were on samples about the size of a postage stamp. The experimental data is used to improve realistic computer simulations of heat shield and parachute systems. “We need to use modern measurement techniques to improve our understanding of material response,” Panerai said. The 3-D X-ray imaging technique and simulated planetary conditions that NASA is enlisting at the ALS provide the best pictures yet of the behavior of the internal 3-D microstructure of spacecraft materials. The experiments are being conducted at an ALS experimental station that captures a sequence of images as a sample is rotated in front of an X-ray beam. These images, which provide views inside the samples and can resolve details less than 1 micron, or 1 millionth of a meter, can be compiled to form detailed 3-D images and animations of samples. This study technique is known as X-ray microtomography. “We have started developing computational tools based on these 3-D images, and we want to try to apply this methodology to other research areas, too,” he said.
News Article | February 22, 2017
Supercomputers, mega-computers located at national laboratory sites that can process calculations in a matter of nanoseconds, are currently processing information that may solve many of the biggest problems humanity faces. There are supercomputers running calculations regarding climate change, world hunger and endless scientific pursuits. NASA of course uses supercomputers for its research. A new modular supercomputing system called Electra at the Ames Research Center is helping the agency to plan its missions as well as also greatly reducing the impact of all those calculations. The Electra system uses a fan technology that uses less than 10 percent of the energy of mechanical refrigeration systems in place at other supercomputing facilities. The system will save about 1 million kWh of electricity every year -- the equivalent of 90 households -- and 1.3 million gallons of water every year. “This is a different way for NASA to do supercomputing in a cost-effective manner,” said Bill Thigpen, chief of the Advanced Computing Branch at Ames’ NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility. “It makes it possible for us to be flexible and add computing resources as needed, and we can save about $35 million dollars—about half the cost of building another big facility.” The system is made of container modules that can be added or removed depending on how much computer power is needed all without interrupting operations. The research demand for the new system has led NASA to consider adding 16 times the current capability. Scientists from around the country can log on to the system for research support and choosing this system over other older systems will result in major energy and water savings.
News Article | February 24, 2017
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted something great about 40 light-years (or about 229 trillion miles) from Earth. It's not a black hole, an exploding star, or an alien ship, but a system of seven temperate terrestrial planets revolving around a young, ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1, named after The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile. The latest discovery is unprecedented. All of the planets in the system could have water, with the chances of liquid water higher on the three planets within the habitable zone. Yes, not unlike in our own solar system with one planet in the Goldilocks Zone, TRAPPIST-1 has three worlds that might have the best conditions to support life. TRAPPIST-1 is a red dwarf or M-dwarf star. Such stars outnumber and outlast yellow stars like our own sun. The multimillion-dollar telescope in Chile was glued observing the young star over 21 days to measure the drop in light as the planets around it passed in front of it. It is far from being a simple process but in English, it involved watching out for tiny specks eclipsing the 500-million-year-old star to determine their mass, sizes, and possible atmospheric properties. "The majority of stars are M-dwarfs, which are faint and small and not very luminous. So the majority of places where you would look for planets are around these cool, small stars. We are interested in the nearest stars, and the nearest stars are mostly M-dwarfs," said Martin Still, program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington. TRAPPIST-1 is about the size of Jupiter with the planets around it roughly similar to Earth's size and mass. Below is a video by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and California Institute of Technology that provides an overview of how the planets were discovered: Revolving around TRAPPIST 1 are planets simply named as TRAPPIST-1 b, c, d, e, f, g and h. Using the data obtained by Spitzer, scientists determined that the planets are likely to be rocky. Further studies are needed to determine if they could have liquid water or other secrets. The outermost planet's mass has not been determined and it might be an icy world. The planets might also be tidally locked to TRAPPIST-1. This means that one side is always facing the star. Having a perpetual day one one side and perpetual night on the other has big implications on what the weather could be like on such planets. Below is an artist's concept of how the planets might look like and a tabulation of their distances from TRAPPIST-1, radii, masses, and orbital periods as compared to Earth. Here are two more images that basically compare the alien solar system to our own, and another image about the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1: In case you're wondering what it will be like on the surface of one these alien worlds, check out the NASA VR that puts us on the surface of TRAPPIST-1d. Enjoy the 360-degree view: With such interesting findings come the usual questions. Are there life forms on TRAPPIST-1? Have we made contact with aliens? Can we someday move and live on these planets? Whether there is life or not will remain a big question for a long time. There will be experts who will say a straight no while there will be those who will say perhaps. "We've come up with these theoretical reasons why such a planet might struggle to be habitable. Then we look at those theoretical concerns with a little bit more detail, and find out it's not that big of a concern. Then some other theoretical concern crops up," said NASA research space scientist Shawn Domagal-Goldman. TRAPPIST-1 is a very young star compared to our sun. Like other young stars, it is in its tantrum stage where it blasts nearby planets with a great amount of radiation and lethal flares. Some think that life might exist and adapt is such harsh environments. "Maybe the atmosphere can recover, and it's just fine. You have regular events, but life is used to this. It just deals with it. We certainly see life on Earth capable of hibernating for very extended periods of time. We see that life goes into a state where it shuts down, sometimes for years or decades. So I think we shouldn't, probably, rule it out, but we should put a lot of effort into studying whether this is a place where we think life could thrive," said senior scientist Tom Barclay of the NASA Ames Research Center in California. Follow-up studies are planned using Spitzer, Kepler and Hubble. A more sensitive telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, that will be operation starting 2018 will also be tapped. In combination, these equipment will help scientists get to know the planets of TRAPPIST-1 more and determine if they are really habitable. The findings of scientists about TRAPPIST-1 appear in the journal Nature. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.