What You Probably Don't Know About NASA

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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.

NASA4.jpgThis 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.


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