Plasma Crystal Experiment Concludes Aboard ISS

The technology for producing cold plasma is now also used for medical purposes. In the world's first clinical trial, the participating scientists and doctors were able to demonstrate that the plasma not only kills germs, but shows wound-healing effects as well. © MPE

The technology for producing cold plasma is now also used for medical purposes. In the world’s first clinical trial, the participating scientists and doctors were able to demonstrate that the plasma not only kills germs, but shows wound-healing effects as well. © MPE

For seven years it delivered outstanding results for science and technology on the International Space Station, now the successful plasma crystal laboratory PK-3 Plus operated one last time. After undocking from the International Space Station the ESA Einstein transporter with the laboratory on board entered the Earth’s atmosphere beginning of November and burned up – and PK-3 Plus produced its last plasma, a hot one. In June the operational phase of PK-3 Plus ended with a last series of experiments and with a spectacular finish; the scientists will still need some time to analyse these data. Read More →

Small Business Contributions to U.S. Space Exploration

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.


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Many of you have likely been following the progression of the Mars Rover Curiosity in recent weeks. I’ve personally developed an interest in the types of tests that are being done on the red planet during the mission. This interest led me to think about the types of test equipment that is being utilized not only for experiments, but to ensure the safety of astronauts in manned missions as well. As I began to research this area further, I discovered an entire segment of expert service providers that are utilized by NASA to develop these specialized systems. Many of them are smaller firms and they’re doing some pretty incredible work for the agency. In fact, I discovered that NASA does a great deal to support small businesses each year via the Office of Small Business Programs (@NASA_OSBP).

Case Study: G Systems, L.P.

Systems and equipment used by NASA and other aerospace organizations aren’t the kind that you can just buy off the shelf. A piece of equipment that is used in space is obviously subjected to vastly different conditions than those found on Earth. Each must be rigorously tested before ever leaving the ground. To meet this need, NASA and other organizations often contract with highly specialized service providers to develop the equipment needed for individual space missions – including appropriate testing equipment required to maintain mission integrity. One such provider in my own backyard is G Systems, a growing, Texas-based engineering firm.

Pressurization and Vent System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Pressurization and Vent System, G Systems, L.P.

Unlike most test equipment available on the market today, the systems that G Systems develops are actually customized, turnkey models. That means that they can be expected to work whenever they’re turned on – without fail. Proper operation and maintenance are huge concerns in the aerospace industry since individual launch windows are often very small and involve a great number of interoperable systems. Having stable equipment to work with is needed because proper operation in space is absolutely vital. This is an industry where a single bolt means the difference between life and death.

While most of you probably have never heard of the company, several of the most recent space projects have involved G Systems’ contributions. For instance, one of their recent projects involved the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Having delivered test systems for the new Orion exploration crew vehicle test facility at the Michoud Assembly plant, G Systems played a major role in ensuring that this project went off without a hitch. They shipped data acquisition devices that collect and record information concerning the crew module’s structural strength.

G Systems also provided Orion researchers with data distribution devices that collect video of the capsule in addition to audio recordings and parametric information. Because the equipment is necessary for pressure tests, it’s actually capable of independently pressurizing the cabin. In other words, it can use supplies of air and helium to alter the pressure inside of the Orion capsule automatically. Data distribution tools also include an operator control terminal so that an engineer can set these options remotely if desired.

Data Acquisition System. Image Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Data Acquisition System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

While the Constellation program has been shelved (sadly), the Orion project remains active today. Structural tests on the capsule are extremely important, and firms such as G Systems have played a key role in the program’s success thus far. While I don’t always agree with the actions taken by NASA administrators, I love the fact that they tap into the amazing talent available at private firms today. In doing so, the agency is supporting small business – always a good thing. This is yet another reason I remain a vocal proponent of NASA today.


Archibald, R., & Finifter, D. (2003). Evaluating the NASA small business innovation research program: preliminary evidence of a trade-off between commercialization and basic research Research Policy, 32 (4), 605-619 DOI: 10.1016/S0048-7333(02)00046-X

Rapid Development of Orion Structural Test Systems. (2011). G Systems, L.P. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from

Mansfield, C. L. (2013, January 14). NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Message of Cosmism

Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky once wrote, “The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot eternally live in a cradle.” While people often think about futurism as a recent concept, Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was laying the foundation of it in the late 19th century. The principle of Russian cosmism combined aspects of natural philosophy, ethics, religion and science. As one might expect from an Eastern European development, Orthodoxy was also an extremely important influence. Read More →

Who is Elon Musk?

Space Exploration Technology, more commonly known as Space X, is owned by Elon Musk. The company has recently announced that it is considering building vertical launch and control areas in far south Texas. Space X already uses Cape Canaveral, Florida. They are also constructing a launch pad and control area at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company is operated by Paypal and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk. Read More →

Back to the Future in Space Exploration

While people often discuss the futuristic aspects of space flight, there was once a real opportunity for smaller nations to reap the benefits of sailing the stars. The Hermes shuttle was a French manned space plane design that was canceled in 1992. It represented a small reusable platform for space travel. Small crafts that could take people to and from Space stations have long been a favorite of science fiction writers yet each year, we get a little closer to the notion becoming reality.

Ariane 5, Hermes Shuttle, and MTFF Module

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The Politics of Space Exploration

Our daily lives have been impacted by NASA in countless ways. Thanks to the agency’s efforts we have GPS, a better understanding of the ozone layer, we are better able to predict the weather and we understand the effect of global warming on our sea levels. Thanks to NASA we are closer to being able to live in outer space and find asteroids that may impact Earth. We understand how Rossby waves affect the weather on Jupiter and have plans to map the universe in new and exciting ways. Today, NASA has over 1,000 original patents that greatly impact our lives on Earth and our knowledge of the universe beyond. There is little doubt that the agency has improved our world since its’ founding in 1958. Read More →

Are Robots the Future of Space Exploration?

Mashable recently posted about the upcoming We Robot 2012 conference and naturally I had to check it out to see if anything space related is included. Alas it’s not but it got me thinking about the future of space exploration in terms of robotics/artificial intelligence (AI). This topic is of course always hotly debated but one worth exploring nonetheless. Read More →

Health Problems Found in Returning Astronauts

NASA is closely monitoring a problem with the eyesight of astronauts who spend a long period in space. Approximately 60% of the astronauts who have spent more than a month in space suffer from intracranial hypertension. This condition is caused by fluid pressure in the skull. This flattening has caused astronauts problems so severe that they can no longer focus correctly. Many astronauts returning to Earth must get glasses for the first time. For others, the problem is so severe that it cannot be corrected. For some astronauts, they can no longer pass the eye exam to get their pilot’s license. Doctors believe the problem is caused by a buildup in fluid in the eyes during the astronauts’ time in flight. Normally, the fluid is pulled down by gravity.

Additionally, 20 percent of the astronauts showed a flattening in the rear of their eyeballs. Almost 33 percent of the astronauts studied also showed an expansion of the space around the optic nerve. This space is normally filled with cerebral spinal fluid. Some astronauts find that the problem corrects itself shortly after returning to earth. Others find that the problem never corrects itself.

Doctors warn that these problems must be further evaluated before longer trips in space can be carried out. Doctors at the University of Texas also warn that astronauts appear to be at greater danger of head trauma upon returning to Earth.

Studies have shown that the human heart could be changed in space, too. According to astrobiologists, it shrinks and pumps less blood. When an astronaut is exposed to microgravity, the blood travels from the lower body to the heart and the head, making the heart larger temporarily. The body interprets this change as an increase of blood volume and tries to expel the excess of fluid through urination, but also the heart shrinks in order to pump less blood. That’s the reason why astronauts feel dizziness when return to Earth.

Image: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY Spacewalk. Composite image of an astronaut floating free during aspacewalk against a backdrop of cloud systems on Earth. A spacewalk is also known as ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA). Astronaut photographed during a space shuttle mission; the spacecraft can be seen reflected in his visor.

Aurora Borealis Showing Her Stuff These Days

The aurora borealis has been putting on a stunning display of intense beauty the last few days in the southern hemisphere. These lights, also known as the northern lights, are produced when super heated plasma escapes from the sun’s atmosphere and travels for two to five days before it meets the earth’s atmosphere. The increased beauty of the aurora borealis is believed to be caused by a crack in the earth’s magnetic field that has allowed more of the plasma to be visible.

Aurora borealis is expected to become more visible over the next 11 years as the sun enters a period when solar spots are more frequent. As the earth experiences more sun spots, the sun will produce more solar winds. As more solar winds are produced more plasma will be drawn into the wind’s circular rotation. As these rotations become stronger plasma escapes from these rotations. The plasma then travels two to five days to meet the earth’s atmosphere. Currently, the earth’s magnetic field near the South Pole has a huge crack in it. This allows more plasma to pass through it. It is this plasma that we see as the aurora borealis.

Autonomous Space Capture Challenge

TopCoder®, Inc., the world’s largest competitive Community of digital creators and MIT, today announced registration has opened for the Autonomous Space Capture Challenge, an algorithm competition from Zero Robotics which seeks computationally efficient code solutions for a hypothetical mission scenario which models autonomous docking or satellite servicing procedures. The online challenge is open to all eligible participants but especially teams from high schools and colleges. Four winning submissions will be tested aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in the recently established SPHERES national laboratory by astronauts. Successful teams will be invited to watch the event live onsite at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or via webcast feed remotely. Register at

Competitors in the Autonomous Space Capture Challenge will be tasked with programming an active satellite or “Tender” to synchronize its motion with and capture a tumbling, passive space object or “POD”. The tournament will have four week-long rounds, during which teams will test their solutions and submit them for scoring and publication on the leader board. At the end of each week the best submission will be published on the Zero Robotics website for public reference and use in the next round. The winner from each week will be included in a demonstration aboard the ISS in late May with the best performing finalist being awarded an additional commendation.

Competition Dates

  • March 28 – competition begins
  • April 4 – submission 1 closes
  • April 11 – submission 2 closes
  • April 18 – submission 3 closes
  • April 25 – submission 4 closes

How to register

“Robots are not just very cool, they represent a rapidly growing and increasingly critical field of education and business,” said Rob Hughes, president and COO of TopCoder, Inc. “From defense to manufacturing, agriculture to pharmaceutical as well as ongoing space exploration, the study and application of robotics has a very bright future.”

Sponsored by DARPA and NASA, and run by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, TopCoder and Aurora Flight Sciences, Zero Robotics is a programming tournament that opens the SPHERES satellite research platform to the general public. Originally developed to engage U.S. middle and high school students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Zero Robotics includes a web-based development environment to create programs for the SPHERES satellites and run simulations to evaluate resulting performance. For more information visit:

About TopCoder, Inc.

TopCoder is the world’s largest competitive community of digital creators with nearly 400,000 members representing algorithmists, software developers and creative artists from over 200 countries. The TopCoder Community creates digital assets including analytics, software and creative designs and solutions for a wide-ranging client base through a competitive, rigorous, standards based methodology. Combined with our extremely talented community this groundbreaking methodology results in superior outcomes for our clients. For more information about sponsoring TopCoder events and utilizing TopCoder’s software services and platforms, visit

TopCoder is a registered trademark of TopCoder, Inc. in the United States and other countries. All other product and company names herein may be trademarks of their respective owners.

Source: TopCoder, Inc.