How NASA Is Working to Protect Our Environment
Lines of cars spilled out onto Route 237, backed up almost the whole way to the I-480 split. The wait to catch a shuttle bus from the I-X Center to NASA-Glenn was over an hour-and-a-half long, but no one really seemed to mind.
The NASA-Glenn Research Center’s open house, in celebration of its 75th anniversary, drew 25,000 visitors this past May, offering an eager public a rare glimpse into the work scientists, engineers, and administrators at the space center do every day. Their research leads to improvements in air travel and propulsion of aerospace vehicles, air traffic communications, and astronaut safety, to name a few.
But NASA’s work is more than just rocket science. Though the work is primarily lauded for its innovation in exploring the atmosphere above us, NASA researchers also work to benefit the earth around us.
Rocket University And The HyDRUS Project
“A lot of people really believed in this project,” Dr. Dionne Hernandez-Lugo says. “They saw the need and the benefit that it would have on Ohio communities and were willing to pitch in and help.”
Hernandez-Lugo is a project manager for the HyDRUS Project, a collaborative effort between a team of NASA-Glenn scientists and software developers with the support of several partners, including the Ohio government and Sinclair Community College in Dayton.
“HyDRUS came out of a development program at NASA-Glenn, Rocket University,” Hernandez-Lugo says. “The idea [of Rocket University] is to train the next generation of engineers and scientists here. There’s a big gap between those who are retiring and the early-career people coming in; many of us are just scientists, so we haven’t often seen a project through its entire life cycle. At Rocket U, we’re given a flight project, an idea, a problem to solve. We’re given 12 to 18 months to go through the whole process; build it, test it, verify it, and then fly it at the end.”
Rocket University participants are allowed to devote up to 20 percent of their work time on their projects. Hernandez-Lugo says being a part of Rocket U helped her “look into other areas and things I may want to do in the future.”
HyDRUS is short for “Hyperspectral HAB Detection via Remote UAV Sensing.” The hyperspectral imager (HSI) detects harmful algal blooms (HAB) by flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or drone) over target areas. HyDRUS was initially the brainchild of NASA Optics and Photonics Branch engineer Roger Tokars.
Tokars says he was inspired during a presentation on the first Rocket U project, a high-altitude balloon. He had been a flight engineer on manned flights using the HSI used to detect algal blooms. “After the presentation, I was asking questions and I thought, ‘If you have a hyperspectral imager on an aircraft, what if I can miniaturize it? Can we put it on something similar to a balloon payload, like a UAV?’ Then the ball started rolling.”
His idea was presented to Rocket University, which then selected HyDRUS as its next project. “I like to describe myself as an experimentalist,” Tokars says. “I just try something new and if it works, it’s like, ‘Great, let’s keep going with that.’ The data doesn’t lie.”
Tokars studied the current HSI he worked with in manned flights and was able to figure out how it worked and how to swap out old components for newer technology.
“I was able to fold the optical system to fit inside this compact payload,” Tokars says. “The image comes in through the lens and bounces off a mirror, gets spread apart to all the different wavelengths, and goes into the camera. The camera is capturing data non-stop at 30 frames per second. We’re also capturing navigation information at the same time. We can bring the navigational data and the hyperspectral image together to see exactly where each image was taken.”
The hyperspectral imagers takes line images, similar to the way a MRI or fax machine would scan and reproduce images line by line, and can detect over a thousand colors by measuring wavelengths, even colors the human eye can’t see, like ultraviolet and infrared. A typical camera and the human eye only see in the basic red, green, and blue primary color range. The technology has the potential for use in other fields like solar energy, medicine, and agriculture.
“For example,” Tokars says, “if you fly over farm crops and map out the area, you can use spectral information to identify how the plants are doing. If they’re low on water, leaves will actually exhibit a different profile as they absorb light differently. Same with fertilizer, plant diseases, invading species—you would be able to identify all that.
“Miniaturizing our hyperspectral imager lets us make closer inspections of targets and high-resolution mapped images of smaller targets like rivers and streams and around specific waypoints. The portability and ease of use of the UAV version allows researchers to quickly and easily map out more localized areas.”
Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers have already expressed interested in the technology as it exists right now. “It’s like an added tool to their arsenal to see what’s going on,” Tokars says.
The HyDRUS team completed their first test flights over Maumee Bay in western Lake Erie early last fall. Sinclair Community College provided the UAV, while Altavian Inc., the UAV’s manufacturer, provided a pilot to fly it for them.
“It was the first ever NASA-Glenn UAV project,” Tokars says, “so there was a lot of care taken to ensure we do this right. Take off, make sure we’re collecting data, make sure the aircraft is strong enough to hold the weight—there’s a lot of safety protocols. There were no problems, no crashes, no UAV flew into anybody’s house.”
“We would not be talking about it if that had happened,” says Hernandez-Lugo, laughing.
“We’d be doing paperwork,” Tokars responds.
Algal Blooms and the Toledo Water Crisis
Algae is common to anyone living near sea or fresh water. We swim in it, drive our boats through it, and eat seafood that lived in it. Only about one percent of algal blooms, large colonies of algae, contain dangerous toxins. Government studies performed in the Great Lakes state the toxins can trigger skin rashes, vomiting, and asthma attacks and other respiratory problems in susceptible people and can even be fatal. Wind, weather conditions, water currents, and fertilizer runoff into water sources can all contribute to the problem. Removing toxins requires adding activated carbon to the water supply, forcing the adhesion of the toxins to the carbon’s surface.
In 2014, toxic algal blooms caused a state of emergency in northwestern Ohio that made international headlines. A particularly large harmful algal bloom made its way into the Toledo area’s water supply intake in Maumee Bay. Farm fertilizer runoff into the Maumee River which drains into the bay was blamed for the the bloom along with high summer heat spurring even faster algae growth, which normally occurs more in the shallower waters near the shoreline. Hundreds of thousands of people were left without water as a result. The Ohio National Guard and volunteer organizations from around the Midwest helped deliver clean water to the area. Many of the people affected had to drive across state lines to find bottled water as the crisis carried on.
NASA Steps In to Help
“Water treatment operators and water quality control officers in the Toledo area measured levels of microcystins (toxins) in the water that were above the World Health Organization’s acceptable level,” Tokars explains. “They double-checked the water samples and told the city. Toledo officials made the decision to institute a ban on the water. We were flying the HSI in the manned aircraft at the time, coincidentally, and we were looking at the algae.
“We were only planning on flying a few times, but it was such a big deal, we were asked by Governor Kasich to help support that effort, so we increased our number of flights from a few to like, 15 flights. We mapped out the area around the bay and gave that information to the water treatment operators, the Ohio EPA, anyone else who was interested in that data. All the data was analyzed to determine algae concentration, toxicity, and sediment in the water.”
The information helped the city of Toledo avoid even bigger problems. “We flew over an area that showed algae around the water intake,” Tokars says. “They weren’t aware of it, so they went out to the intake and did a measurement and confirmed the presence of microcystins.”
Since Toledo’s water crisis, local, state, and even the federal government have all taken steps to help prevent it happening again: farm fertilization regulations, nationwide guidelines on safe microcystin levels, and nearly $200 million in funding. Meanwhile, NASA continues to run its manned imaging flights over western Lake Erie and is getting ready to add the UAV program to its toolbox.
NASA and the Glenn Research Center will continue to be known primarily for their work in outer space—NASA-Glenn’s involvement in the International Space Station and the mission to Mars continue to be its most attention-getting achievements—but its presence in our community, sometimes the less headline-grabbing information, is what you need to know about the most. Ask Toledo.
Making It To Mars
The U.S. Space Program’s Road to the Red Planet Runs Through Cleveland
Senior Research Engineer Diane Linne is researching how to turn Mars’ dirt into oxygen with an idea she had while rototilling her garden. Simulated Mars dirt is placed into a heating chamber and rototilled to expose it to the high temperatures and separate out the hydrogen. The hydrogen is filtered into a condenser where it can be turned into drinking water, fuel, and oxygen.
Linne explains: “To make oxygen and methane from the Mars atmosphere and water in the soil, we first need to excavate the soil and bake off the water that is chemically bound in the form of hydrated minerals. There are also signs of underground sheets of ice that we could tap into, but we are not yet certain how deep they are, and if they will be worth drilling down to in the areas where the people want to land. Once we have water, we will electrolyze it into oxygen and hydrogen, chill and store the oxygen in the propellant tanks, and send the hydrogen and the Mars atmospheric carbon dioxide to a Sabatier reactor where catalysts and proper thermal management will result in methane and water. We will chill and store the methane, electrolyze the water, store that oxygen, and send that hydrogen back to the Sabatier reactor until we have all of the oxygen and methane that we need. Once the ascent vehicle is fully fueled, we can continue harvesting water for life support, or even to fill up a ‘water-wall’ surrounding the habitat as water is an excellent source of radiation protection.”