We’ve developed thousands of technologies for space exploration,
but they’re not just helpful for space.
Since 1976, NASA has been putting out a publication called Spinoff,
which profiles some of the biggest technologies
that began at NASA and are now helping life on Earth.
And from masks for firefighters to supercharged computer networks,
Spinoff 2020 is full of space-age technology that’s found its way into our lives.
First, those masks!
If a fire happens on the International Space Station,
it’s a big deal, and astronauts are trained to extinguish it.
And to protect them in the process, they’re equipped with masks
made of ten layers of filtering material, mostly synthetic stuff.
These work great, but water vapor and really big or hot particles
can clog the filter or melt the synthetics, limiting how long the masks can be useful.
So within the last few years, NASA contractors have set out
to make some improvements to help the masks last as long as possible.
And they’re using an incredible new technology
that promises to revolutionize filtration as we know it: wool.
It turns out that wool makes a really good filter!
Because it contains lots of nitrogen and water, it’s got natural fire resistance,
and because it’s super absorbent, it handles water vapor really well.
The contractors reached out to a company in New Zealand called Lanaco,
which makes wool-based air filters.
And together, they’re working on a mask pre-filter,
something that will block big or hot stuff before the synthetic layers take over.
They’re planning to use it for NASA’s fire masks, but also for firefighters on Earth.
And like, they’re going all in on it.
They are breeding sheep to produce wool with the perfect thickness,
and they’re testing their prototypes with their local fire department.
Also, because these filters are great with moisture,
they’re good at absorbing breath and cough particles, too.
So Lanaco is even taking a version of this filter
and putting it into masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19!
So, this spinoff technology is finding yet another application
by coming in clutch for healthcare providers.
The next spinoff is also used in healthcare, but is way more sci-fi: robot hands.
NASA’s Robonaut project is making humanoid robots to go places
that are too dangerous for us, or to work alongside astronauts as an extra pair of hands.
But, well, hands are complicated.
Each of your fingers needs to be able to sense how much pressure they’re applying
in order to manipulate objects that are delicate or have weird shapes.
And it’s hard to replicate that!
But when NASA was looking for solutions to this problem in 2004,
they realized they already had half the answer,
because there was an old Spinoff project from 2002 that could do the trick.
It was developed by Intelligent Fiber Optic Systems,
and it was a technology that could sense pressure for infrastructure purposes,
like, to sense how much weight was on a bridge.
It works by having tiny, compressible pieces
called fiber Bragg gratings, embedded in optical fibers.
White light gets sent down the fiber, the grating splits the light into different colors,
and then it reflects the light back to a sensor.
But the key is, the colors of reflected light change
depending on how stretched or compressed the grating is.
If it’s stretched out, it sends back redder light,
and if it’s compressed, it sends back bluer light.
And the sensor can turn that into a pressure reading.
The company called their technology optical nerves,
and NASA worked with them to adapt the idea for their robot’s fingers.
In 2004, they were able to fit a bunch of these sensors into a small area, which was great!
Except, the whole setup was still too big, so it didn’t work out for the Robonauts.
Thankfully, the fiber optics company was able to find
other uses for their new, souped-up system.
For example, they’re now developing
pressure-sensitive biopsy needles for use in cancer treatment.
These tools can sense the density of the tissue surrounding them,
which can help doctors differentiate between softer, healthy tissue and harder tumors.
And because fiber optics don’t interfere with MRIs,
these needles can be used with real-time imaging, as well.
Oh, and also, the company has learned
how to make their system a lot smaller and cheaper since 2004,
so now, they are even revisiting the robotic hand idea, but as a prosthetic.
They’ve also gotten a lot smaller and cheaper in the last few years,
and that’s because of another spinoff, called Beowulf clusters.
Back in 1993, supercomputers weren’t great.
They worked on the same basic principle as their counterparts today:
a lot of processors are linked together to work in parallel and share a workload.
But they were also all running exclusive software on exclusive hardware,
so they were really expensive, and they also crashed a lot.
So for teams that needed to process a bunch of data and run simulations of like,
big, universe-wide processes, teams like, you know, the ones at NASA,
this was a bit of a problem.
Then came two computer scientists: Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker.
They realized you didn’t need fancy software to run supercomputers:
Instead, you could just use Linux.
It’s an open-source operating system, and most versions cost zero dollars.
It’s also easy to learn and to customize.
Sterling and Becker realized that, if they ran Linux on a bunch of computers
and linked them together, they could make a cheap, easy-to-deploy supercomputer;
one that could actually handle NASA’s big projects.
So they linked together 16 computers and called it a Beowulf cluster.
It’s a very good name that doesn’t actually have much significance.
But oh, man, did these things take off, because it turns out,
people don’t like bulky, expensive, buggy computers! Go figure!
In addition to NASA, national labs and universities use Beowulf clusters
to run complex simulations and process terabytes of data in hours and days,
rather than weeks and months.
So now, they’re used in industry for developing all kinds of products,
from airplane wings to shoes.
None of these technologies would exist
if space explorers didn’t have a specific problem to solve.
But luckily for us, sometimes those solutions apply to problems here on the ground, too.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Space!
If you wanna learn about more space tech that’s shaped life on Earth,
you can check out our episode from last year about Spinoff 2019.