What You Probably Don't Know About NASA
While at Maker Faire 2016 in San Mateo recently, I met with George Gorospe of NASA’s Ames Research Center to discuss his group’s recent findings and projects, NASA’s CubeSats and microsatellites, and what the commercialization of space travel means for the near future.
Barry Matties: George, please start by telling me a little bit about what you do at NASA Ames and why you're here at the Maker Faire.
George Gorospe: At NASA Ames I am a research engineer for SGT Inc. I am the manager of the diagnostics and prognostics research laboratory. In the laboratory, we do testing of vital components, or mission-critical components, in order to determine their overall health state and develop mathematical models of these components. Then we can develop prognostic algorithms that help the user, or the builder, determine the overall remaining health or life of the component.
This is really important for things like condition-based maintenance. If you have something like a battery and you want to use that battery all the way until it's about to die, but you use it longer than that and it dies, then you're really in a pickle. Being able to understand that really well is not actually all that easy. It involves lots of testing, algorithm development, and then verification of your algorithm. This is true for batteries, for actuators, for things like structural components, and for things like composite materials. It's not easy to know how a composite material behaves right before it fails. It involves lots of careful mathematical modeling and research.
Matties: Is the research you're doing primarily for NASA applications, first and foremost?
Gorospe: Yes. The research is based mostly on aeronautic structures, engines, batteries and actuators. The other battery work we do is for CubeSats, like these here. The types of batteries used in space are actually really expensive, but the types of batteries used for CubeSats, because they're so much smaller, haven't been matured all that much. You have to test those batteries before you put them in your CubeSat and before you launch them.
Matties: It's mission-critical. You're not going to retrieve this thing, right? Once it's in space, it's gone on its way to Mars or wherever.
Gorospe: Not only that, but NASA doesn't make batteries. We buy batteries. If someone is selling you a battery, do you really know what's inside of it? If you take it apart, you can't use it anymore. It's important to test it and know that what you have is a good battery. Even for quality assurance, we test the batteries repeatedly before putting them in a spacecraft that will launch.
Matties: With the research you do, do you make that available to public companies or the public in general?
Gorospe: Yes. Actually, my research group itself is well known for publishing very, very large data sets. It's because these “test until failure” type of tests that we do in our laboratory are really expensive to do. For instance, over the last summer we tested a high bypass turbo fan engine from Pratt & Whitney until failure. That is a multimillion-dollar engine that NASA destroyed. On purpose!
Matties: That's a lot of fun.
Gorospe: Who else could do that? Nobody else can do that. Why did we do that? What we did is we let this engine, at cruise speeds, on the ground of course, ingest pulverized volcanic ash. Why? Let’s say, for instance, the volcano in the northern Atlantic erupts...
Matties: Mt. St. Helens is seismically active right now.
Gorospe: Right, and you've got flight routes through the North Atlantic that are all disrupted and everybody's got to go around. It uses time. It uses fuel. Both of which are expensive. When you ask Delta or Lufthansa how close they can get to this volcanic ash plume, they're going to say, “No, we can't get near any of it. We don't want even a single particle of that in our aircraft.” It is hard to know how close you can fly a passenger jet to a volcanic ash plume because it is a very risky event. By testing the engine’s reaction to simulated volcanic ash cloud, it helps airlines and the passengers and everyone to know how close you can actually get and still be safe.
Matties: The big threat to aircraft engines today is the drone. Have you done any drone analysis in engines?
Gorospe: There's a separate body of research also being conducted by members of my group called Safe 50. It is on better understanding drone operation from 0 to 50 feet in altitude. This is a really complex part of drone operation. There are buildings, people, cars, and all of these things. You need to develop methods in order to safely operate a drone in that region. Above 50 feet, things are maybe not any less complex, but there are fewer interactions with other things.
We also need to enable a better dialogue between drone operators and aircraft operators. As someone who doesn't operate commercial aircraft and as someone who can understand the operation of drones, NASA is in a really good place to enable that dialogue.
Matties: What do you think about the privatization of the space race?
Gorospe: I think it's wonderful. It's going to define what we do in space from here on out. If you think about tanks, there are many American tanks in Iraq and overseas right now. Who got those tanks there? The United States didn't build them there. They didn't simply take them there with their warships. They paid a contractor to get them there. They paid for a transportation company to take their heavy equipment there. NASA pays people like SpaceX or other groups to take their equipment to space. If those people can do that inexpensively, then that helps us so much more, because suddenly myself and the other scientists at NASA Ames can be more interested in what we do with the equipment once it gets to space. We don't want to concern ourselves with getting the stuff to space.
Matties: The journey there.
Gorospe: Where NASA spent a lot of its money developing the space shuttle and the space transportation system, that effort and that money can now be redirected towards, “What are you going to do in space? What are you going to build in space with all that mass that you can suddenly get to space much easier?”
I like to think of SpaceX as UPS or FedEx. We're the builders of the package, and we're also the consumers of it when it gets to its destination.
Matties: That's a great way to look at it. You're right, that’s a very smart use of resources.
Gorospe: I think there are a lot of smart people in this world, and I like them to be focused on their specific portion. Focus on building better rockets, more efficient rockets, getting the price down, and when the price goes down, we can get more to space and can think more deeply about what to do in space, rather than how to build a rocket.
Matties: It also opens up the commercial market too, where companies can now look at technology like the cube satellites and micro satellites that you’re displaying here, and it allows companies to more easily get their technology into space.
Gorospe: We were just talking with a group from Virginia from an elementary school, and they are the first elementary school ever to launch a CubeSat. The CubeSat was launched on Monday.
Matties: Is that strictly a photographic kind of satellite, or is it giving them other sorts of data?
Gorospe: I'm not sure about the science payload on theirs.
Matties: Just the fact that they're doing it is quite impressive.
Gorospe: Isn't that awesome? If you think about when I was in elementary school, we had computers, but we only had like a computer hour, where you had to have two people sharing a computer for an hour and then you had to go back to your classroom. Now elementary schools have iPads in their classroom and anybody can use it always. I was talking to someone else who said, “We didn't even have internet in elementary school, and now there are kids building CubeSats in elementary school?”
Matties: It's fantastic. I had Tinkertoys.
Gorospe: Yeah, but you never put your Tinkertoys in space, right? It really just broadens all these horizons, and when you don't see barriers like that, and you can think freely about how to use the tools that are in front of you, then new ways, new ideas, are just bound to come.
Matties: I see some circuit boards here. Are you guys designing circuit boards at your facility?
Gorospe: Yes. We often design them.
Matties: This particular board that we're looking at is a unique board. Why don't you talk a little bit about this?
Gorospe: This is one element of a digital material. This particular element features strain gauges. You can imagine, let's say 200 of these exact same things all assembled into a space structure, and now you have a large structure with individual elements inside of that structure able to tell you the stresses that they're experiencing. You then get, from one smart element, a smart material that can be used to build a smart structure. It’s really, really incredible.
Matties: It is. You guys are doing great work and we really appreciate that. Just some final thoughts, where do you see space travel and the commercialization of space travel going, and what do you see for the future of space? When I talk about the future, maybe the next ten years or so.
Gorospe: I think assembly in low earth orbit is going to be huge. I think storage depot of fuel, oxygen, water, things like that, in low earth orbit is going to become more important. I think we’ll see more missions that are outside of Earth's orbit, and that are maybe much smaller in scale of the spacecraft than previous ones. For example, Pioneer and Voyager, all of these were quite large spacecraft. Why not send some CubeSats beyond Earth's orbit? Why not send CubeSats to Mars or to the outer solar system?
Matties: Certainly landing a small satellite like a cube on Mars would be a lot easier than bouncing a giant rover.
Gorospe: Absolutely. Like I said, with the temporal nature of these you're able to develop them quickly and you're able to put the most recent technology on them. You can do a lot of things very quickly with these types of spacecraft.
Matties: Do you know any of the estimated costs for a company to launch a CubeSat?
Gorospe: No I don’t, I'm sorry. I can tell you one thing about a lot of the larger launches, though. Let's say DirecTV is going to launch their satellite. Their satellite is the size of a food truck. It's a very big satellite. Now consider what they're launching it with, like a SpaceX Falcon 9. The capability of that rocket exceeds the weight of the primary payload, so you have deadweight or you have extra space. If DirecTV wants, they can sell off that space, or, if they're feeling generous, give it away to high schools, elementary schools, colleges, etc., who want to piggyback.
NASA actually developed a system to allow CubeSats to basically safely piggyback, because you don't want to jeopardize the primary mission. So the equipment that deploys the CubeSats and how it's integrated with the stack, as we call it, is important, because if whoever built that deployer didn't do a very good job, like it doesn't disconnect or something like that, it increases the risk for the primary mission. NASA said, “Let's handle building this ourselves. Then people like DirecTV who are buying this rocket will have much more confidence to add this and allow schools to piggyback.” So NASA built the deployer which enables companies to be generous like that.
Matties: What should OEMs in America or anywhere, really, know about what you guys are doing, and how does it apply to their business?
Gorospe: NASA really likes their technology partnerships and really likes small, but innovative research. We also have things we call spinoffs, where we take some of our technology developed in-house and we talk to OEMs about how they can go ahead and lease that information from us and work with it. What we really like to talk about is how what we do in the air or in space can directly affect people on the ground. How has NASA made your life better? Think about CDs. Think about small cameras in your phones, and things like that. That's technology developed at NASA that eventually trickled down through technology partnerships and through leasing of other technology by OEMs, allowing them to put it in their products. You just have to look for those things and NASA has a yearly publication of certain things that have gone on and have been integrated in actual products. Things that were developed last year will be in this year’s microwave, or next year it's going to be in that camping equipment.
Matties: George, I really appreciate your time today. I know you guys are busy, but I appreciate you taking time out to do this.
Gorospe: No problem, I had a great time. Thank you for stopping by.