Tag Archives: NASA

NASA uses Arduino and XBee to test de-orbitting technology

“That’s one small step for XBee, one giant leap for wireless.”

As you may know, NASA successfully launched the Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket carrying two space technology demonstration projects back on July 7th. The spacecraft conveyed the Radial Core Heat Spreader from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, along with the SOAREX-8 Exo-Brake Flight Test from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.


What you may not know is that, aboard the rocket, was an Arduino and a few XBees. Researchers had been exploring the use of Exo-Brake technology, an exo-atmospheric passive braking device that could eventually enable small samples to be returned fairly rapidly from an orbital platform, like the International Space Station. Accomplishing this requires exploiting the exosphere by deploying a drogue parachute with an area of about 10-square-feet per 2.2-pounds of satellite.

“We were able to send commands and receive data to and from the satellite via the onboard modem using only a laptop and email account. This capability may greatly benefit the entire nanosatellite community.” Marcus Murbach of NASA’s Ames Research Center recently explained.


As part of the program to determine potential applications of wireless technologies in space, NASA selected the combination of XBee ZigBee modules, an Arduino Mega (ATmega2560) and an Iridium module to create a network to reliably gather critical data. The XBee was employed to collect the sensor data including temperature, air pressure and three-axis acceleration parameters, while the Arduino was tasked with managing communications between the local XBee wireless network and the long-range Iridium satellite uplink.


“Wireless sensor technology allows measuring important parameters such as aerodynamic pressure and temperature at the apex of the Exo-Brake during re-entry. It is very difficult to instrument a deployable parachute like the Exo-Brake, and wireless sensor modules provide the means for this type of measurement where it is difficult to run wires,” added NASA computer engineer Rick Alena.

Seeing as this was the XBee network’s first trip to space, its team had to capture the moment on video. The folks at Digi have been kind enough to share it, so you can watch it below! Those wishing to learn more about the Exo-Brake can do so here.

NASA chip reflects Wi-Fi to improve your wearable device’s battery life

This new technology could reduce the power needed to send information from wearables.

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and UCLA are currently working on a Wi-Fi reflector chip that they say would drastically improve battery life in wearable devices by reducing the power needed to transmit or receive information to computers and cellular and Wi-Fi networks.


The chip uses existing wireless signals to reflect information back to a router or cell tower instead of the wearable generating the signal itself. According to Adrian Tang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, not only does this drastically reduce power consumption, the solution also transmits Wi-Fi signal three times faster than traditional Wi-Fi.

Information transmitted to and from a wearable device is encoded as 1s and 0s, just like data on a computer. When incoming energy is absorbed by the circuit, that’s a “0,” and if the chip reflects that energy, that’s a “1.” This simple switch mechanism uses very little power and allows for the fast transfer of information between a wearable device and a computer, smartphone, tablet or other technology capable of receiving the data.

Tang, who is collaborating on the project with UCLA’s M.C. Frank Chang, says one of the challenges is that the wearable device isn’t the only object in a room that reflects signals. Keep in mind, there can be walls, floors, ceilings and furniture, among several other things. The chip in the wearable needs to differentiate between the real Wi-Fi signal and the reflection from the background. To overcome this, Tang and Chang developed a wireless silicon chip that constantly senses and suppresses background reflections, enabling the Wi-Fi signal to be transmitted without interference from surrounding objects.

The technologists have tested the system at distances of up to 20 feet. At about 8 feet, they achieved a data transfer rate of 330 megabits per second, which is about three times the current Wi-Fi rate, using about a thousand times less power than a regular Wi-Fi link.


“You can send a video in a couple of seconds, but you don’t consume the energy of the wearable device. The transmitter externally is expending energy – not the watch or other wearable,” Chang explains.

A base station and Wi-Fi service ares still required in order for the system to work. Since power is taken from the base station, computer, Wi-Fi or other network supporting the chip, the source will need to be plugged in or have long battery life. Researchers are working to minimize those energy limitations, but Tang is optimistic that the solution will be commercialized. For example, astronauts and robotic spacecraft could potentially use this technology to transmit images at a lower cost to their precious power supplies. This might also allow more images to be sent at a time.

The patent application for this technology is jointly owned by the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA and UCLA. You can read more about it here.

[Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Amazon proposes designated airspace for drones

This is how Amazon thinks drones should fit into U.S. airspace.

Amazon envisions a future delivery system that can get packages to your doorstep in 30 minutes or less using small unmanned aerial vehicles. Before Prime Air can come to fruition, though, it must first overcome a fair share of regulatory hurdles. To get the ball rolling, the retailer recently laid out a proposal that aims to divide the U.S. airspace into various layers for different categories of drones, all while keeping them away from airplanes.


The plan, which was described by Amazon’s top drone executive at the NASA UTM Convention, would include two different lanes at varying altitudes: one for “low speed localized traffic” below 200 feet and another for “high-speed transit” between 200 and 400 feet in the sky. Meanwhile, the 400-500 feet range would be deemed a “no fly zone,” unless for emergencies.

Right now, the FAA regulates all manned air travel using humans and air traffic towers. However, the latest pitch is part of a broader effort to develop automated systems that would maintain order amid the growing number of drones soaring around U.S. skies. The Amazon vision shares many similarities to NASA’s plan for an automated drone-traffic management system, a project that already has gained interest from more than 100 enterprises and universities.


As The Verge points out, there would also be vehicle-to-vehicle communication, similar to that of autonomous automobiles. The positional data of each drone would be collected by a command station and shared with every other vehicle connected to the network. Access to the different layers of the airspace would be governed by how well a drone can communicate with its pilot, the central network, and other UAVs. If a flying gadget cannot connect to others, it will be required to remain below 200 feet. This new air traffic control system would link drones to traditional aircraft as well.

While it remains unclear as to which organization will steward the project, it appears NASA has taken the lead. The agency has partnered with Verizon on a new program that would enable cell towers to serve as nodes in this system, helping to track drones and exchange critical information between aircraft and fleets. According to The GuardianVerizon is scheduled to introduce a concept for using cell coverage for data, navigation, surveillance and tracking of drones by 2017.


While the future of drone delivery remains up in the air (no pun intended), as more companies collaborate with government agencies, it’s only a matter of time before services like Prime Air become a reality.

[Images: Amazon, The Verge]

NASA advances CubeSat concept for planetary exploration

NASA is looking to explore other planets using loaf of bread-sized satellites.

Although scientists are increasingly using pint-size satellites sometimes no larger than a loaf of bread to gather data from low-Earth orbit, they have yet to apply the less-expensive small-satellite technology to observe physical phenomena far fromterra firma. That was until now at least, as NASA Goddard Space Flight Center technologist Jaime Esper is looking to give the highly-popular CubeSat concept that capability.


Dubbed the CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions (CAPE), the concept involves the development of two modules: a service module that would propel the spacecraft to its celestial target and a separate planetary entry probe that could survive a rapid dive through the atmosphere of an extraterrestrial planet, all while reliably transmitting scientific and engineering data.

The CAPE spacecraft, including the service module and entry probe, will weigh less than 11 pounds and measure no more than four inches on a side. After being ejected from its ‘mothership,’ it will would spread its mini solar panels or run on internal battery power as it heads toward another planetary body. Upon reaching its destination, the service module will detach from the sensor-laden probe, where it will collect data like temperature and atmospheric pressure as it makes its way back to the mothership. This information will then be transmitted it to the ground station here on Earth.

“The CAPE concept is like no other CubeSat mission,” Esper explained. “It goes the extra step in delivering a complete spacecraft for carrying out scientific investigations. We are the only researchers working on a concept like this.”


CubeSats are small satellites, which are typically flown as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions. Since these projects are relatively inexpensive to build and deploy, especially when compared to traditional multi-million-dollar satellites, NASA can conceivably launch several CAPEs to monitor the various aspects of a planet. As of now, the agency has sent more than 30 CubeSats into space over the last several years, with a backlog of more than 50 awaiting rides in the near future.

Before any of this can happen though, Esper has to prove this concept works. He will accomplish this by equipping the Micro-Reentry Capsule (MIRCA) craft with accelerometers, gyros, thermal and pressure sensors and radiometers, which monitors specific gases, and test its stability by dropping a prototype comprised only of the entry module from a high-altitude balloon this summer in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

“If I can demonstrate the entry vehicle, I then could attract potential partners to provide the rest of the vehicle,” Esper adds. “The balloon drop of MIRCA will in itself mark the first time a CubeSat planetary entry capsule is flight tested, not only at Goddard, but anywhere else in the world. That, in turn, enables new opportunities in planetary exploration not available to date and represents a game-changing opportunity for Goddard.”

Want to learn more? Head over to its official page here.

NASA unboxes the first 3D-printed objects from space

Quincy Bean, the principal investigator for the space station printer, removes and inspects the first items made in space with a 3D printer.

Remember when the first 3D-printed objects in space touched down on Earth via SpaceX’s Dragon back on February 10, 2015? Well, now NASA has released a video showing the unboxing of the 21 parts that were manufactured aboard the International Space Station.


The Zero-G 3D Printing Demonstration, which is a collaboration between Silicon Valley-based Made In Space and NASA, represents the first steps toward realizing a print-on-demand “machine shop” for long-duration missions and sustaining human exploration of other planets, where there is extremely limited availability of Earth-based resupply and logistics support. In-space additive manufacturing technologies will ultimately help NASA explore Mars, asteroids, and other locations in the future.

“Before the printer was launched to the space station, it made an identical set of parts. Now, materials engineers will put both the space samples and ground control samples literally under a microscope and through a series of tests,” NASA writes.

In order to protect the space-manufactured items, they must remain in bags until inspection is complete and testing begins at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Once opened, project engineers will compare dimensions, layer thickness, layer adhesion, relative strength and relative flexibility between the identical items made in space and on Earth. From there, they will develop a database of mechanical properties, noting any difference in durability, strength, and structure.

Watch below as more than 20 parts were unboxed on April 6, 2015 at Marshall’s Additive Manufacturing Laboratory.

3D-printed tools from space are now on Earth for testing

Additive manufacturing in space is ready for take-off! 

We’ll know soon enough as to whether the wrenches that were 3D-printed aboard the International Space Station will be up to the mark. That’s because the objects arrived on Earth via SpaceX’s Dragon back on February 10, 2015 following the first phase of Made In Space and NASA’s 3D Printing in Zero-G Demonstration.


As previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, the study team used a printer specifically developed for use in microgravity, which extruded plastic filaments heated at lower temperatures. To conclude its initial testing phase, a ratchet wrench was printed using a design file transmitted from the ground to the printer. Samples, hardware and data from several biology and biotechnology studies were then returned with completion of the SpaceX contracted resupply mission for researchers to build on research that will enable further space exploration.

Here on Earth, the team will now have the opportunity to analyze a wide-range of newly 3D-printed wrenches, experimental data to enhance cooling systems and protein crystals and seedling samples — each of which will allow the scientists to improve upon existing studies. If successful, this will inch one step closer to approving 3D printers for future Mars manned missions, not to mention showcasing the potential of additive manufacturing in orbit.


While in zero gravity, researchers were investigating the use of crystallized cystic fibrosis protein and other closely-related proteins to improve drug therapies for the genetic disorder that causes severe damage to the lungs and digestive system, along with samples of seedling from plants grown in the station to aid in more efficient agricultural and bioenergy resources on Earth.

On the orbital laboratory, researchers also examined liquids at the verge of boiling to understand how the flow of heat in liquids behaves in microgravity. This is important to the development of cooling systems for space exploration with additional applications to waste disposal and recycling processes on Earth.


“For the printer’s final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars,” explained Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3D printer program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Insight from demonstrations in microgravity also may help improve 3D printing technology on Earth.

Undoubtedly, the scientific research delivered and returned by Dragon will pave the way for advancements in every aspect of the diverse space station science portfolio, ranging from biology and biotechnology to physical sciences and technology development. You can find an entire breakdown of the parts printed while aboard the ISS here, as well as read NASA’s official announcement here.

Made In Space completes first round of 3D prints on the ISS

After four months, here are all 25 parts that have been 3D-printed in space.

November 24th at 9:28pm GMT is a moment that Made In Space and the entire Maker community will never forget. It was the day that the crew completed the first functional 3D print outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. The historic Zero-G 3D printer arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on September 23, 2014 and was activated on November 17, a week before making the replacement plastic faceplate for the machine’s own extruder system. Now a couple of months later, the Silicon Valley startup has revealed that has indeed finished its initial round of objects ranging from a calibration coupon to a ratchet. (The ratchet actually marked the first time in history an object had ever been emailed into space as well.)


“Although there were only 14 unique objects printed, 25 parts were printed in total. Duplicates were printed in order to determine the consistency of the printer over time,” the team wrote in a recent blog post. “The part that was printed the most was the ‘calibration coupon’ for a total of five times. Like a calibration page that standard inkjet printers print out when connected for the first time, the calibration coupon was used to verify that the 3D printer was working as expected. The ‘tensile test; was printed four times and both the ‘compression test’ and the ‘flex test’ were printed three times. Everything else was printed once.”

While the delivery of the 3D printer was an accomplishment in itself, the project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. Generally speaking, the devices extrude streams of heated plastic, metal or other material, building layer on top of layer to create three-dimensional item. By testing a 3D printer using relatively low-temperature plastic feedstock on the ISS, NASA hopes that one day astronauts will be able to create objects on-demand, rather than having to carry them into orbit. This will allow for a reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which can ultimately change exploration mission architectures altogether. What’s more, astronauts can print these pieces from emails and downloaded files of 3D designs.


Aside from becoming the first demonstrate of additive manufacturing in space, NASA researchers say that the project provides:

  • A detailed analysis of how acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic resin behaves in microgravity
  • A comparison between additive manufacturing in Earth’s gravity and in consistent, long-term exposure to microgravity (insufficient in parabolic flights due to “print-pause” style of printing)
  • Advance the TRL of additive manufacturing processes to provide risk reduction, and capabilities, to future flight or mission development programs
  • The gateway to fabricating parts on-demand in space, thus reducing the need for spare parts on the mission manifest
  • A technology with the promise to provide a significant return on investment, by enabling future NASA missions that would not be feasible without the capability to manufacture parts in situ
  • The first step towards evolving additive manufacturing for use in space, and on Deep Space Missions


“Based on visual inspection and crew interaction, there were no significant print failures. If you have ever used a 3D printer before you probably realize just how incredible that first sentence is, especially when you then consider the fact that this 3D printer had to first withstand the forces of a rocket launch before printing anything. The successful printing was an incredibly rewarding outcome for the NASA and Made In Space engineering teams who strived to build a robust and hassle-free printer,” the Made In Space crew writes.

As for what the future holds, Made In Space plans on launching its Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) later this year, which the team says will not be a science experiment like its predecessor, but rather “a commercially available printer ready for use by anyone on Earth.” The AMF will be twice the size of the demo printer, and will be equipped to handle the manufacturing of larger, more complex objects with finer precision — and with multiple aerospace grade materials. Under the agreement for use of the commercial 3D printer on the ISS, Made In Space will own the machine, and NASA will be a customer paying to use it.

The initial success of the technology demonstration and the startup’s blueprint for the coming months provide a clear path forward in bringing advanced manufacturing capabilities into space. Interested in learning more? You can read Made In Space’s entire update, while also reviewing NASA’s report here.

NASA wants helicopter drones to scout for Mars rovers

A new drone could triple the distances that Mars rovers can drive in a Martian day and help pinpoint interesting targets for study, says NASA.

While 3D printing in space was truly out of this world, NASA is looking to take their Maker game to an entirely new level: Mars. As you’re well aware, drones are just about everywhere these days, from Necker Island to Hollywood to the X Games. Now, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA is looking to bring them to Mars in the form of what they call the “Mars Helicopter.”


Though rovers have provided a great deal of information on the history and composition of the Red Planet, the high-tech tools lack in terms of orbital imagery and are limited to the view of its on-board cameras. Instead, NASA is hoping that its aerial robot scout can fly ahead of rovers, provide operators a much more in-depth look at the Mars, and allow them to “check out various possible points of interest and helping engineers back on Earth plan the best driving route.”

In addition, researchers could also use images from the ‘copter to seek features for rovers to study in greater detail. What’s more, the planet’s harsh environment and terrain means a drone needs to be engineered to be rugged enough to endure Martian conditions while remaining light enough to fly. The vehicle is envisioned to weigh 2.2 pounds and measure 3.6 feet across from the tip of one blade to the other. So far, the vehicle is a proof-of-concept with the prototype’s body resembling that of a medium-sized cubic tissue box.

Intrigued? Learn more about the NASA lab’s latest project here.

The first object has been 3D-printed in space

Mark this day in the history books: November 24th at 9:28pm GMT (1:28pm PST). That was the moment the team at Made In Space completed their first functional 3D print in space. What was the first object printed outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, you ask? A replacement plastic faceplate for the Zero­-G device’s own extruder system. It was created and installed right in the International Space Station.

“This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA Project Manager.


This project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. The results of this experiment will serve as a stepping stone for significant future capabilities that will allow for the reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which will change exploration mission architectures for the better,” explained Mike Snyder, Made In Space Director of R&D. “Manufacturing components on demand will yield more efficient, more reliable, and less Earth dependent space programs in the near future.”

Moving forward, the team aspires to print various items, each of which will be brought back down to our planet in 2015 and compared with counterparts that were printed here on Earth. This will help determine what differences there are in microgravity printing. Werkheiser has already noted that the newly-constructed part possesses stronger bonds of adhesion than originally anticipated, however the team is unsure at the moment as to whether the effects were caused by microgravity or “part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing.”


Back on November 17th, NASA astronaut and Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore installed the Made In Space Zero-G 3D Printer and conducted the first calibration test print. Based on the results from its trial, the ground control team sent commands to realign the printer and printed a second calibration test on November 20th. These tests verified that the machine was ready for manufacturing operations.

Then, on November 24th, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first 3D-printed part, which demonstrated that the printer can indeed make replacement parts for itself. As its press release points out, the device used a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine.

This isn’t just your average desktop printer sealed up in a box and sent off into outer space. In fact, the 3D printer was put to the test by NASA with over 20,000 print hours of testing. The Made in Space 3D printer successfully completed its testing at Marshall this past April, and the flight hardware was turned over for flight integration. The printer was then delivered to the ISS in September via a Space X Dragon capsule.

“If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid,” added Werkheiser. “Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer.”


As Made In Space explains, while objects have been previously created in space, there has never been true, sustained manufacturing there. Years of testing and development have taught the team just how challenging an environment space would be for additive manufacturing.

“In 1957, Sputnik became the first man-made object in space and, 12 years later, that led to humans setting foot on the moon,” said Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer. “Now, in 2014, we’ve taken another significant step forward – we’ve started operating a machine that will lead us to continual manufacturing in space. Decades from now, people will look back to this event…it will be seen as the moment when the paradigm of how we get hardware to space changed.”

Well, this gives the term ‘Maker space’ a much more literal meaning! You can stay up-to-date with the Made In Space team here.



NASA plans to 3D print an entire telescope

Ready or not, 3D printing is going to be out of this world… literally! By the end of next month, NASA Aerospace Engineer Jason Budinoff is expected to complete an imaging telescope almost entirely out of 3D-printed parts. The 2-inch device could feasibly change the way the organization takes pictures in space.


“As far as I know, we are the first to attempt to build an entire instrument with 3D printing,” Budinoff explains. The engineer is in the process of devising a fully-function 50mm camera whose outer tube, baffles and optical mounts are all printed as a single structure. The instrument is appropriately sized for a CubeSat (a small satellite made of individual units each about 100mm on a side). When equipped with mirrors and glass lenses, the instrument will undergo vibration and thermal-vacuum testing next year.

Budinoff describes his machine as a ‘pathfinder’ that is meant to probe the possibilities of further incorporating 3D printing technology into future space exploration. Aspiring to test the feasibility and durability of the medium with this project, the engineer hopes that “with 3D printing, we can reduce the overall number of parts and make them with nearly arbitrary geometries.” He ads, “We’re not limited by traditional mill-and-lathe fabrication operations.”

The engineer aims to complete the telescope by the end of the fiscal year, and afterwards, the entire assembly will undergo vigorous testing to assure that it is space worthy. He notes that if his low-cost gadget passes the tests, “We will have mitigated the risk, and when future program managers ask, ‘Can we use this technology?’ we can say, ‘Yes, we already have qualified it.’”

The one portion of the telescope that will not be 3D-printed will be the optical lenses, though Budinoff is contemplating a new way of designing mirrors with printed aluminum. If his idea of pressure treating unpolished mirror blanks proves viable, it could allow for an increase in these devices being forged as single structures.

Cutting Edge Magazine - Tim Stephenson

Next year, the engineer has his eyes set on experimenting with printing instrument components made of Invar alloy, a material being prepared for 3D printing by Goddard technologist Tim Stephenson. The 100-year-old iron-nickel alloy offers extreme dimensional stability over a range of temperatures, and is ideal for building super-stable, lightweight skeletons that support telescopes and other instruments, NASA notes.

Ideally, Budinoff has high hopes for this courageous project. “Anyone who builds optical instruments will benefit from what we’re learning here,” the engineer proudly concluded. “I think we can demonstrate an order-of-magnitude reduction in cost and time with 3D printing.”