A look at the top NASA technological innovations that are bettering life on Earth.
NASA is surely on the cutting edge of technology, as its research and development take them literally out of this world. Fortunately, its innovation is not exciting only in space; as NASA seeks to make space travel easier, safer, and more sustainable, the technology it develops is also useful and in use right here on the ground. Technologies originally developed in pursuit of exiting the atmosphere now help us address some of the biggest challenges we face on Earth. Here are eight examples of NASA technologies bettering our planet today.
1. Ear thermometers began as a way to take the temperature of the stars
Since no normal instrument could do the job and take a temperature measurement from stars, NASA tried out infrared technology. The idea was capitalized here on Earth when Diatek Corp. asked NASA to help develop the infrared sensor for an aural thermometer, which we now use to measure the energy an eardrum gives off in the ear canal. Today’s hospital versions can take a temperature in a little over a second.
2. Materials developed for shuttle internal tank insulation revolutionized the making of artificial limbs
The manufacture of prosthetics was previously done by casting them in plaster and corn starch molds, which are difficult to ship and easily broken. The Harshberger Prosthetic & Orthotic Center looked to NASA for an answer and found that the foam insulation developed to cover the external tank of a space shuttle — lighter, stronger, and more easily machined than plaster, not to mention less expensive. This ultimately reduced the cost of artificial limbs for patients and enabled mass production of foam “blanks” that can be shipped to prosthetic makers.
3. Space telescope technology looks for cancer
In the past, if a mammogram x-ray produced a trouble spot, a doctor would perform a biopsy that required them to cut into the breast for a tissue sample. Technology developed for the Hubble Space Telescope, however, allows biopsies to be performed with just a needle. An advanced, super sensitive version of charged coupled devices — silicon chips that convert light into electronic or digital images — were initially installed in the Hubble Telescope in 1997 and shortly adopted for a new breast biopsy system. The device allows more accurate imaging of breast tissue than a traditional x-ray, so doctors can pinpoint the area in question and extract a tiny sample with a needle.
4. NASA materials become ultra-comfortable, temperature-regulating shoe inserts
Many of the daily life improvements that originated with NASA resulted from commercial partnerships turning materials intended for highly specialized applications into something else entirely. In this case, aerogel moved from NASA’s cryogenic applications into our shoes. As light as air, aerogel is an open-celled material that is, in fact, 95 percent air. The material has individual pores only nanometers wide that are filled with gas or air and the lowest thermal conductivity of any known solid. NASA partnered with Aspen Systems to make a practical version of the material for use in industrial applications and in the consumer market; it has been widely successful as an insole insert called Toasty Feet that resists heat loss and gain, offering comfort for athletes, hunters, mountain climbers in the most extreme environments.
5. Satellite technology track hurricanes and predict global crop production
It’s no surprise that satellite imagery has many applications beyond NASA’s primary applications. The data those instruments are capable of tracking can give a bird’s-eye (or greater) view of what’s going on down on Earth. For instance, an algorithm designed to detect and filter out clouds in satellite image data is being used to map crop coverage and health, ground conditions and global production forecasts–all without cloud coverage compromising the calculations. This allows produce exporters to work with accurate data when setting prices and drumming up sales.
Weather conditions can also be tracked from satellites. The Cross-track Infrared Sounder mounted on a polar-orbiting satellite uses a laser to scan the atmosphere and provide accurate data on temperature and humidity. This data is invaluable for meteorologists predicting storm intensity and direction, then issuing timely warnings.
6. Technology to measure moon dust fights air pollution
Moondust clings to everything, abrasive enough that it once broke the vacuum designed to clean it off Apollo spacesuits, and above all, damaging to sensitive tissues like corneas and lungs. Finding a way to sense and contain it became paramount to manned lunar missions, and the Apollo missions struggled to deal with the damage it caused. All these risks exist in various forms on Earth, albeit mostly less aggressively, in particulate matter polluting our own air. The eventual solution to monitoring and containing moondust — the Canary-S — has also been deployed across numerous industries to aid firefighters, monitor the efficacy of environmental controls in the oil and gas industry, and more.
The Canary-S is a self-contained unit powered by solar energy that can measure pollutants including particulate matter, carbon dioxide, methane, and sulfur dioxide, among others. It takes constant measurements and sends messages to a secure cloud every minute, where they are then routed to the Lunar Outpost’s dashboard or to a customer’s database. Importantly, the sensors and software are flexible, making them easy to customize to various applications. Of course, measurements on Earth are a bit trickier, as they’re influenced by wind and humidity, but the Canary-S has been validated as accurate for both daily and long-term measurements and is providing needed support in hazardous environments at home.
7. NASA could help provide viable drinking water even where it’s scarce
Since sending water — which weighs considerably more than rocket fuel — into orbit is incredibly costly, NASA has had to develop ways to recycle small amounts of water into continuous use. Namely urine, sweat, and moisture from breath are collected and purified and estimated to be cleaner than most drinking water available on Earth. A lot of our water purifying technology is a spin-off from what astronauts needed to survive, such as the common household tap water filter.
A shower developed recently recycles its water supply for astronauts using “positively charged microscopic alumina fibers [that] can remove virtually all contaminants, including bacteria and viruses.” In fact, the new system also enables a faster flow rate of recycled water than current systems. All these factors give it the potential to greatly improve access to water and life in drought-stricken regions.
8. Open source software
As of 2021, a database of more than 800 innovations is publicly available for download via NASA’s software catalog. These are pieces of code that have aided in operations on Earth, as well as on missions to the Moon and Mars. All are being shared for free via NASA’s Technology Transfer Program, run by the Space Technology Mission Directorate, to further NASA’s commitment to American taxpayers benefiting from the technologies developed by and for NASA. The space agency has also provided a detailed outline of how the software may be used by both companies and individuals. This commitment to not just exploration but to providing benefit to the American people has led to all the technologies big and small on this list and more.
The return on investment for every dollar spent on NASA endeavors is high. Let’s invest more and watch the world soar.
This article was originally published on EE Times.
Cabe Atwell is an electrical engineer living in the Chicago area.