25 Years Since Galileo: A Recent Look at NASA Technologies

By Steve Brachmann
October 17, 2014

Artists rendering of a Galileo fly by.

October 18 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1989 launching of the Galileo spacecraft by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a mission which focused on the study of the planet Jupiter and its moons. Galileo provided NASA researchers with data leading to the discovery of the ocean on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and provided the first ever recorded images of a comet striking a planet before the mission was terminated on September 21, 2003. Data collected by the Galileo spacecraft is still leading to a better understanding of our solar system, as researchers recently announced evidence of shifting plate tectonics on Europa, the first time this has been witnessed anywhere other than earth.

For decades, the operations of NASA have been incredibly innovative and inspirational to inventors of all kinds. The agency is still involved in various programs for scientific research, especially involving Mars. NASA recently announced a partnership with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to work collaboratively on future missions to explore Mars. NASA is also moving towards a scheduled December launch date for an unmanned mission involving the Orion capsule to test its crew safety systems; Orion could be launched with astronauts aboard by 2021.

Here at IPWatchdog, we wanted to take some time to profile the inventions recently patented by NASA. Technologies developed by this agency must operate in a wide range of extreme temperatures, and a trio of recently issued patents discuss material advancements in this field. We feature a couple of electronics systems aiding NASA research program, including one patent protect a ground-to-space laser for sensor calibration. Other intriguing NASA inventions we noticed today include a method of purifying a fungal agent for soil and water bioremediation and a metamaterial capable of creating superlenses for various applications.

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High-Tech Electronic Components for Extreme Temperatures 

NASA’s work in rocket-propelled technologies as well as activities in outer space has required it over the years to develop electronic systems which are capable of withstanding temperature extremes, both hot and cold. Our look at the patents recently issued to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration brought us face to face with a number of intriguing electronics which are designed for use in the unforgiving temperatures of outer space.

Lithium-based polymer batteries used in aerospace applications must be capable of performing in conditions that range from -70°C to 70°C. Ensuring the conductivity of lithium ions at temperatures above 60°C is the focus of the invention protected by U.S. Patent No. 8841406, entitled Branched Rod-Coil Polyimide–Poly(Alkalene Oxide) Copolymers and Electrolyte Compositions. The patent protects a copolymer which is cured to create a gel network capable of conducting lithium ions within batteries. The invention is an improvement on conventional copolymers which are more expensive and less environmentally friendly, as some copolymers are insoluble in organic solvents after the curing process, preventing their ability to be recast. Metallic composites which can serve as a protective coating for space satellites and vehicles are discussed within U.S. Patent No. 8753417, which is titled High Temperature Solid Lubricant Coating for High Temperature Wear Applications. The patent protects a composite comprised of a metal fluoride, a bonding metal and a metal-bonded chromium oxide, and a specific percentage of weight for all of these metallic components within the total composite. The composite is designed for use as a lubricant for satellite and vehicle instruments such as process control valve systems, butterfly valve stems, rotating face valves and more. The lubricant works at cryogenic temperatures reaching -185°C up through extreme temperatures of 900°C.

Over the course of time, the reliable operating temperature range for silicon electronics has increased past 200°C, increasing their applications in aeronautics and vehicle technologies. However, aerospace combustion engines can reach temperatures of 600°C, making many silicon-based electronics incapable of handling processing jobs in these environments. U.S. Patent No. 8841698, issued under the title Method for Providing Semiconductors Having Self-Aligned Ion Implant, protects a foundation element for Junction Field Effect Transistors (JFETs) capable of being operated at temperatures of 500°C for more than 10,000 hours. This technology hits the 300°C threshold needed for further implementation of silicon JFETs in many technological fields outside of aerospace, including automotive and energy-producing systems, and can achieve operationality in environments reaching temperatures of 600°C.

 

Enhanced Electronics for NASA Research Systems

The research aims of NASA require the use of incredibly precise sensor systems which are capable of photographing the cosmos or calculating the flight path of an object in orbit. A number of the issued patents assigned to NASA which we noticed today discuss improvements to many of these intricate systems which will allow the governmental research agency to go further in surveying the stars than ever before, as well as make the use of these systems simpler for technicians.

From U.S. Patent No. 8767210, titled “Method for Ground-to-Space Laser Calibration System.”

High-fidelity localization and isolation of acoustic sources typically requires the use of large arrays of microphones, but a method for keeping microphone costs down while providing the proper accuracy is protected by U.S. Patent No. 8848942, entitled Acoustic Beam Forming Array Using Feedback-Controlled Microphones for Tuning and Self-Matching of Frequency Response. The patent protects a feedback-controlled microphone that includes a membrane operatively connected to the microphone body and configured to be deflected by acoustic pressure in such a way that the deflection is characterized by a frequency response. This technology supports accurate detection of frequency response without deterioration from temperature or humidity. Methods of calibrating a spaceborne sensor from a ground location have also been developed by NASA, as is evidenced by U.S. Patent No. 8767210, issued under the title Method for Ground-to-Space Laser Calibration System. The method of calibrating an optical sensor aboard an orbiting satellite which is protected involves the use of a ground-based laser which generates a linearly polarized light signal with a constant intensity and a constant polarization. This calibration system improves on conventional methods implemented through onboard verification systems, which add weight to a craft and increase mission costs and which are also inaccessible if maintenance is needed.

We also noted an innovative upgrade to electronic wiring designed to accommodate the further progress of Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors used in dense integrated circuits (ICs) double every two years. U.S. Patent No. 8834597, which is titled Copper Nanowire Production for Interconnect Applications, cites Moore’s law as a reason for developing the method of fabricating small diameter nanowires composed of copper. The metallic copper nanowires produced through this process can measure as little as 20 nanometers in diameter, with reductions in diameter size being accomplished by reacting those nanowires with a vapor composed of hydrogen, including both H and H2 forms of hydrogen.

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Intriguing Technologies for Life on Earth 

Not all of the research aims of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are set on such lofty sights as outer space. The organization’s Earth Science Division, for example, is dedicated to understanding the various systems of planet Earth, including the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and more. Another trio of patents which we wanted to present to our readers today involve technological innovations that have much more to do with improving life here on Earth than increasing our ability to search outer space.

Bioremediation of environmental hazards within an area of soil or water through the use of fungal agents has been developed by many organizations as a means to degrade or sequester environmental contaminants. NASA has created its own innovative entry into this field with the technology protected by U.S. Patent No. 8759057, which is titled Methods for Purifying Enzymes for Mycoremediation. The patent protects a process of purifying laccase, a fungal enzyme that utilizes an array of phenolic substrates, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PAHs and PCBs are contaminants which are often found in diesel spills. This purification method is capable of harvesting laccase from fungi with fleshy structures, increasing the number of laccase sources for bioremediation.

From U.S. Patent No. 8795147, titled “Modifying the Genetic Regulation of Bone and Cartilage Cells and Associated Tissue by EMF Stimulation Fields and Uses Thereof.”

Genetic therapies which are designed to treat various disorders of the skeletal system have been protected for NASA through U.S. Patent No. 8795147, titled Modifying the Genetic Regulation of Bone and Cartilage Cells and Associated Tissue by EMF Stimulation Fields and Uses Thereof. The patent protects a method of regulating the expression level of a gene or gene family through the use of relatively low frequency magnetic fields. Modifying the genetic regulation of osteoblasts, chondrocytes, osteoclasts and associated tissues can increase the repair capabilities of bone and cartilage in response to conditions such as osteoarthritis or osteoporosis.

One final patent which piqued our interest today involves a ergonomics innovation for tools operated by humans in a work environment. U.S. Patent No. 8849453, issued under the title Human Grasp Assist Device with Exoskeleton, is jointly issued to NASA as well as GM Global Technology Operations LLC of Detroit, MI. It protects a grasp assist system which involves a glove with a force sensor to measure the grasping force of an operator’s grip and a controller which measures the tensile force in response to the grasping force. This innovation serves to offload some of the tensile force from an operator’s finger to the exoskeleton of the glove.

From U.S. Patent No. 8849453, titled “Human Grasp Assist Device with Exoskeleton.”

 

Coming Soon from NASA

We’ll close our overview of recent NASA innovations with a look at a couple of interesting patent applications filed by the government agency. Although a patent has not yet been issued for either of these inventions, they do represent the latest research and development activities in which the agency has engaged. Metamaterials, or artificial materials engineered to have properties that aren’t found in nature, are the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140287904, which is titled Negative Dielectric Constant Material Based on Ion Conducting Materials. The metamaterials involved in the invention are specifically negative index materials which have the unique ability to achieve a negative refractive index, enabling the creation of superlenses with greatly increased optical resolutions. The invention has multiple applications in both the commercial aerospace and military industries, such as cloaking or high-frequency communication systems.

We also took a close look at an invention for creating a material from carbon-based sources with high mechanical properties, described in U.S. Patent Application No. 20140273695, filed under the title Sucrose Treated Carbon Nanotube and Graphene Yarns and Sheets. This patent application would protect a method of treating carbon material containing a plurality of carbon microstructures with a liquid sucrose solution to form an amorphous carbon-coated material. The resulting material is lightweight and better capable of bearing loads than conventional carbon nanotube materials.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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There are currently 1 Comment comments.

  1. Susan October 17, 2014 11:45 am

    Thank you for a fascinating article!!! I was fortunate enough to have worked on subcomponents of this spacecraft many decades ago. Amazing the amount of spinoffs and new developments that are still happening. Thank you for a refreshing update!