NASA, Spacehab seek to advance air monitoring technology
Through a new, two-year joint-research
partnership with Spacehab Inc., NASA will begin testing miniature mass
spectrometers, devices that can detect and measure pollutants, for advances in
air quality management. As a result, development of a compact, portable
system may help clear the air in spacecrafts and homes by monitoring air
Mass spectrometer technology provides a powerful tool to monitor volatile
compounds, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen, in air. The device probes
the chemical molecules in the air, breaking them up into fragments and, by use
of magnetic fields, deflects them to identify and measure their concentration
"In space, we worry about air pollution that may adversely affect
crewmembers' health," said John James, chief toxicologist at NASA's Johnson
Space Center. "The air they breathe gets filtered, but it is then recycled
many times, which can cause the accumulation of potentially harmful
contaminants. We need a way to tell us when the air is polluted and to help
us pinpoint the source."
For example, if the device detects halon, a chemical used in fire
extinguishers, it might suggest equipment leakage. If the levels of a
chemical generally found in lower concentrations suddenly increases, it could
suggest the air cleaning system is failing.
Mass spectrometers on the market typically weigh about 100 lbs. and take
up the space of a car trunk. Manufacturers of the systems have reduced some
mass spectrometers to suitcase size, but these are still large for space use.
As NASA prepares to go back to the Moon and further in space, it seeks a
device that could fit inside a lunar habitat or Mars spacecraft to monitor the
atmosphere with immediate results.
NASA's partner, Spacehab, has teamed up with Zyvex, a company that
specializes in nanotechnology, to scale down the size of available mass
"Developing, transporting and installing large, complex detection and
classification equipment on orbit is extremely problematic," said Michael E.
Bain, Spacehab chief operating officer. "We are excited about this
opportunity to provide a solution that is small, lightweight and portable
enough to be easily delivered to, and operated anywhere humans live and work
Researchers aim to reduce the equipment's size to that of a deck of
playing cards while increasing accuracy and response time. Lower
manufacturing costs may also reduce purchase costs of the advanced air quality
The new technology also may find uses on Earth. Smaller monitoring
devices may be useful for security measures to detect chemicals or locate
explosives. Advances in air quality monitors also may better detect unsafe
levels of carbon monoxide or formaldehyde, a common chemical found in new
furnishings and carpeting in homes.
"In general, the air inside a house is dirtier than the air outside,"
James said. "Advancing technologies for space can serve us on Earth, just as
the many innovations that came out of NASA's first missions to the Moon did
and still do today."
Under the non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement negotiated with Spacehab
through JSC's Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office, NASA research
and facilities will join with private-industry expertise to enhance the
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.