Dad builds kids the ultimate NASA spacecraft simulator

Spacecraft includes LED lights, sound effects, switches, dials, and more

Remember that adventure you had as a kid when you jumped into that cardboard box and used it as your own personal spaceship to soar through the stars? Although that was most likely tons of fun, one awesome father took imagination to the next level with his homemade NASA simulator.

Highsmith_Spaceship_Simulator

Highsmith’s NASA spacecraft simulator. Image via makezine.com.

Earlier this year, the handy and creative Jeff Highsmith designed and built a mission control desk for his two sons. As if that wasn’t cool enough, it now interfaces with his new spaceship simulator, thanks to a fully functional intercom system. The spacecraft features LED lights, a robotic arm, real switches, buttons, and dials that trigger flashing along with sound effects, an iPhone mount that plays real NASA footage, and the best part: it also includes a bass shaker in the floor so the mini-astronauts on board can feel the rocket blasting off.  Read More

Students develop robotic gardening technology to be used in deep space

In cooperation with NASA, graduate students are creating a remotely operated plant production system for producing edible plants during long-term missions

To stay healthy, astronauts have to eat a balanced diet each day while exploring beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, and right now, NASA researchers are designing robots to tend gardens in deep-space habitats. Though it sounds like a concept straight out of Star Wars, a team of graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder is developing the innovative technology to make it happen.

The students’ entry in the eXploration HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge, a university-level project designed to engage and retain students in science, technology, engineering, and math is called “Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces.” They’re currently developing a Distributed Remotely Operated Plant Production System, known as DROPPS, which is a concept for producing edible plants during long-term missions to destinations such as Mars. Instead of an area set aside to be used for just vegetation, the idea behind the project is that plants will be able to be distributed in any available area in a deep-space habitat.

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University of Colorado Boulder graduate students Heather Hava, left, and Daniel Zukowski, second from the left, describe a computerized SmartPot, or SPOT. Image via NASA. Read More

Flying Robot Drones Make Life Easier on the International Space Station

An article I wrote for Electronic Products.

Smart SPHERES, NASA’s free-flying robotic satellites, are built to assist astronauts during space exploration

Robots flying around in space seem more like fiction than reality, but recently NASA has been testing their free-flying robots called Smart SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) in the International Space Station (ISS).

Self-contained with power, propulsion, computing, and navigation equipment, the purpose of these volleyball-sized spherical robots, which have been on the Space Station since 2006, is to perform simple, routine tasks on the ISS, such as in-flight maintenance to keep the Space Station safe and habitable for humans. To receive more information from the inside of the ISS from Earth, NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group added an expansion port to each satellite for usage of additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless transfer systems.

SPHERES

The SPHERES have been on the Space Station since 2006 and were originally developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA Small Business Innovation Research funding. Image via universetoday.com.

To transform the SPHERES into Smart SPHERES, project engineers at NASA equipped the free-flying satellites with an Android phone, the Nexus S, to function as the brains of the flying robots. By connecting a smartphone, the SPHERES immediately became more intelligent and automatically had a built-in camera to take pictures and videos, sensors to help with conducting inspections, a powerful computing unit for calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that can be used to transfer data in real time to the ISS and Mission Control. The Nexus S was chosen because it’s easy to take apart and simple to program.  Read More

Working Out on the International Space Station

An article I wrote for Electronic Products.

A look at how astronauts stay in shape in space

Here on Earth, we’re constantly using certain muscles to support ourselves against the force of gravity. But for astronauts on manned missions, the absence of gravity aboard a spacecraft makes moving physically undemanding.

Because astronauts work in a weightless environment, little muscle contraction is needed to support their bodies. Without regular exercise, muscles such as the calves, quadriceps, and those in the back and neck can weaken and deteriorate. The loss of physical strength can be extremely dangerous, especially if an astronaut must perform an emergency procedure while re-entering the Earth’s gravitational field. Studies have shown that astronauts experience up to a 20% loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting five to 11 days. So while working gravity-free in space, what do they do to keep their muscles from deteriorating?

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) exercise, and they do so intensively for two and a half hours a day. There’s exercise equipment aboard the ISS, and each machine has different uses to combat the many effects of muscle atrophy.

The Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) maintains muscle strength and mass in astronauts during long periods in space. It uses adjustable resistance piston-driven vacuum cylinders and a flywheel system to simulate free-weight exercises in normal gravity. Without workouts like the ones possible on the ARED, astronauts are at risk of losing up to 15% of their muscle volume, which is difficult, or even impossible, to regain back on Earth. The ARED can exercise all major muscle groups while focusing on squats, dead lifts, and calf rises. This device provides up to 600 pounds and has a touchscreen to make it easy for crewmembers to follow a personalized plan.

ARED

ARED maintains muscle strength and mass in astronauts during long periods in space.

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Smartphones Journey to Space in New, Leaner Spacecraft Era

An article I wrote for Electronic Products.

Created with affordable, everyday technology, small spacecraft are paving the way for future ideas

If there’s anyone who knows about spacecraft technology, it’s the Chief of Mission Design Division (MDD) at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Chad Frost. Being at the forefront of the aerospace industry for more than 25 years, Frost has designed and analyzed many flight control systems for aircraft. Now leading the MDD, he and his staff develop new spacecraft, technologies, tools, and mission concepts to accomplish revolutionary science on strict budgets.

Each year, millions of dollars go into spacecraft hardware, avionics, electronics, and software, even for small satellites. But as the world’s technology constantly advances, new and unexpected ideas are born.

“A few years ago, we had the intriguing idea that you might actually be able to build a spacecraft around a smartphone,” Frost said. “As a society, we’ve driven consumer electronics really hard to the point where they are just amazingly capable little devices, and ridiculously affordable for what they can do.”

With that in mind, NASA began brainstorming ways to build systems around familiar everyday technology. Intrigued by building a much smaller spacecraft based entirely on consumer devices and other low-cost systems, NASA got to work on combining a consumer-grade smartphone in conjunction with other commercial off-the-shelf components. The result was the PhoneSat project, the joint effort of three smartphones in orbit, as part of NASA’s nanosatellite mission.

PhoneSat Image

Image taken by the PhoneSat 2.0 (Graham) nanosatellite. Reconstructed by the Ames PhoneSat Team. Credit: NASA Ames

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NASA brings space to Earth

An article I wrote for Electronic Products.

American lives are touched by space technology every day

Since 1976, over 1,600 documented NASA technologies have worked their way into everyday life, creating jobs and improving the quality of life in the United States. The Space Shuttle Program, which was the United States government’s manned launch vehicle program from 1981 to 2011, has generated at least 120 technology spinoffs that many Americans rely on every day.

Unexpected Discoveries

Among the most outstanding spinoffs developed from the Space Shuttle Program are life-saving medical innovations, energy-conserving insulation and design elements, and protective eyewear.

Some of the most important discoveries were advances in medical technology, such as the creation of heart pumps. The lives of more than 200 people were saved with tiny heart pumps developed from space shuttle fuel pump technology.  The miniaturized ventricular assist pumps were a result of collaboration between doctors and NASA engineers. The pumps are one inch in diameter, weighing less than four ounces, and have kept hundreds of patients alive as they waited for transplants.

NASA Heart Pump

NASA’s artificial heart pump. Image via nasa.gov.

One of the shuttle’s most flexible spinoffs is NASA’s form of aerogel, the world’s lightest solid and one of the most effective insulators, that was used to keep liquid hydrogen fuel for the shuttle below -253 degrees C. Now aerogel is used to protect homes and industrial equipment, warm the feet of mountain climbers, and treat painful circulatory disorders.

NASA Aerogel

NASA’s aerogel. Image via nasa.gov.

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The sun’s strongest flare this year

An article I wrote for Electronic Products.

As the sun reaches the end of its 11-year cycle, solar flares will become increasingly common

Classified as an M6.5 flare, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured a striking image of the strongest flare emitted from the sun this year.

Solar Flare

The M6.5 solar flare captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image via nasa.gov.

Though it’s 10 times less powerful than the strongest flares recorded, which are labeled as X-class flares, an M-class flare, like the one pictured below, can still cause space weather effects near Earth. This particular flare produced a radio blackout, categorized as an R2 on a scale between R1 and R5 on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) space weather scales, but has since died out. Read More