Winning technologies benefit NASA, industry on Earth and beyond


In 2021, NASA recognized four teams from across the agency for inventions and software that will help government and private industry. New technologies can help improve passenger flights and remotely operated vehicles, improve data about our home planet, and send spacecraft and astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

“Whether it’s creating new space technologies that help wildfire fighters or software that will help NASA’s deep space probes navigate safely to distant destinations, NASA’s inventions continue to contribute to American leadership in space,” said Dr. Bhavya Lal, Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy and Strategy at NASA. “NASA personnel continue to drive innovation by turning diverse ideas into value that benefits everyone.”

Plan a path in space

Tracing a mission’s path through space depends on a complex mix of factors, including destination, fuel, and the number of spacecraft involved.

The Copernicus spacecraft trajectory design and optimization system streamlines this process. Copernicus enables teams to model, design and optimize space paths for their missions, from the simplest flights to more complex missions that may involve multiple spacecraft with different propulsion systems.

Copernicus also allows teams to consider how the gravity of multiple celestial bodies – for example, the Earth and the Moon – might influence mission design. Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston use Copernicus as their primary tool to design trajectories for Artemis missions using Orion.

Copernicus, a NASA Johnson project, has been selected as NASA’s 2021 Software of the Year. Copernicus was originally developed at the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 by Dr. Cesar Ocampo with support from NASA, and lead development was transferred to NASA Johnson in 2007, where it is in continued development since. At Johnson, the Copernicus project is led by Gerald Condon and lead developer is Jacob Williams. Organizations interested in obtaining Copernicus can apply through NASA Technology Transfer.

Make air transport more efficient

Back home, the weather can be a challenge for planes following their own carefully planned paths. Air traffic experiences significant delays when weather conditions involve significant convection – updrafts and downdrafts in an unstable atmosphere, sometimes resulting in thunderstorms. The work of air traffic controllers constantly requires a high level of concentration, reasoning and decision-making. The air transport system is already operating at the threshold of human capacity.

The National Airspace System Constraint Assessment and Reporting Tool, or NASCENT, suggests routes to circumvent weather conditions while avoiding restricted airspace, reducing congestion and prioritizing the security. The system relies on observed air traffic controller behavior to reduce flight times and uses historically used flight paths to streamline air traffic controller approval. It operates within current Federal Aviation Administration operating procedures, which means there is no additional cost to the national air transportation system infrastructure to use the tool. NASCENT could help improve the efficiency of air traffic operations, reduce delays, save fuel and reduce harmful emissions.

The technology has been licensed by several companies for commercial and research purposes. NASCENT was recognized as co-winner of the 2021 Invention of the Year in the Government category. The project is led by Kapil Sheth at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

Sharpening NASA’s Eyes on Earth

A compact infrared sensor gives NASA and industry better insight into Earth’s hotspots in a package small enough to fit on a miniature satellite.

The Compact Thermal Imager, or CTI, infrared detection technology is relatively easy and inexpensive to create, can be tuned to specific wavelengths, and is more sensitive than many other infrared detectors. CTI can also operate in warmer temperatures, which means it doesn’t need additional cooling equipment and can be placed on small satellites like CubeSats.

CTI has already flown on the International Space Station, where it has taken more than 15 million infrared images of Earth. Images from CTI-type sensors can help scientists and industry gather better data on topics such as forest fires and agriculture. Georgia-based Cybercorps LLC licensed CTI in 2019 and plans to offer real-time agricultural data to farmers, resource managers, first responders and other interested user groups by flying CTI on a CubeSat to capture thermal images of the Earth’s surface.

CTI was recognized as co-winner of the 2021 Invention of the Year in the Government category and is led by Murzy Jhabvala, Donald Jennings and Compton Tucker. The CTI was developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with funding from the center’s internal research and development fund, NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office, and NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. NASA, which funded QmagiQ to develop some of the sensor components.

Advancing flight safety for unmanned aircraft

Unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft – called unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS – have their own set of challenges to overcome when designing a safe flight path.

A NASA collision avoidance technology combines algorithms, sensors and software embedded on UAS. It offers enhanced traffic situational awareness, real-time weather monitoring and navigation, all designed for the short-range trajectories most often used by UAS. The algorithm can automatically avoid collisions and return the aircraft to its previous path once the potential collision is cleared.

The technology has been licensed by a private company, Vigilant Aerospace Systems, which has used it to provide sense-and-avoidance and airspace management solutions to two pilot wireless aircraft integration programs. pilot. The company also used the technology to provide portable airspace security support to the nonprofit Humanitarian Drone Team that assisted with relief efforts and to document damage in the aftermath of the hurricane. Harvey in 2017.

The technology – called Automatic Dependent Surveillance (ADS-B) Broadcast System with Radar for Vessel and Traffic Situational Awareness – was the 2021 invention of the year in the commercial category, recognizing a technology from the NASA which has a commercial license in place. The technology was developed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, by a team led by Ricardo Arteaga.

About the NASA Invention and Software of the Year Awards

The NASA Invention of the Year and Software of the Year awards honor the best innovations developed by various NASA teams. The Inventions and Contributions Board evaluates entries (for the software award, a panel of software experts provides board feedback), and winners are selected and recommended to the administrator for approval.

The Invention of the Year awards are sponsored by NASA’s Office of the General Counsel. The Software of the Year award is sponsored by the Offices of Chief Engineer, Security and Mission Assurance, and Chief Information Officer. The Council for Inventions and Contributions is managed by NASA’s Office of General Counsel with support from the agency’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy.


Comments are closed.