Track and trace to Mars

Limited only by existing technology, outer space is truly the next frontier for human exploration.

In the coming decades the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is planning manned trips back to the moon and to Mars by 2020.

In order to accomplish these goals, NASA is investing in research into new technologies such as RFID that can make space travel over such distances more feasible.

Part of this research involves a program called the Material International Space Station Experiment (MISSE).

The idea of the MISSE Program is to provide economical opportunities to test new technologies in space using the International Space Station.

This will also reduce the risks of using the technologies on a critical mission for the first time.

The program is managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center with involvement from the US Air Force Research Lab, US Naval Research Lab, and a number of universities and aerospace companies.

Three MISSEs have been completed (MISSEs 1, 2, and 5), two MISSEs (MISSEs 3 and 4) are currently in space on the Space Station and they will be returned in mid summer this year.

Two MISSEs (MISSEs 6A and 6B) are being made ready for launch late this year.

These MISSEs will test thousands of specimens of materials, optical devices, solar cells, and other components that are planned for use on future space missions.

Some of the items that are being tested as part of an upcoming MISSE experiment will be Gen2 passive RFID tags manufactured by Intermec Technologies.

At present both soft and hard tags are being tested for their suitability to be used on future space missions.

The tags will be placed in a case connected to the outside of the International Space Station and left there for approximately one year.

They will be exposed to extreme heat and cold, ultraviolet radiation, atomic oxygen and the vacuum of space. Astronauts will perform visual inspections of the materials, and also take photographs.

After a year, the tags will be returned to Earth on the space shuttle and tested using commercially available Intermec readers in the clean room at NASA’s Atmospheric Systems Development Laboratory at the Langley Research Center in Virginia to evaluate whether they are still functioning.

Other materials being tested for MISSE include radiation shielding, thermal control coatings, thermal protection materials such as ablative and ceramic matrix composites, and others.

“The prospect of utilising RFID technology for manned space flight is very promising at this stage,” says Fred Schramm, Administrator for the Internal Research and Development Program at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, USA.

“The astronauts are limited in which parts of the spacecraft can be reached after takeoff, and also are limited by the hours in the day.”

“They do not have time or the capability to visually inspect every component on the ship, or to log every item of equipment.”

“RFID has the potential to do this for them,” he says.

RFID tags installed on space-borne vessels will potentially have a number of benefits.

For instance, if an astronaut is trying to find a misplaced tool that has been tagged, it can easily be located anywhere in the ship.

RFID can even help with things as simple as monitoring food and water supplies by logging each time a packet of food or water is taken.

Detailed records of movements of objects can be recorded automatically.

If RFID proves to be effective in outer space, it will result in a large amount of time saving for astronauts who can dedicate their energy to other tasks such as maintaining the vessel and performing scientific experiments.

Each part being remotely monitored, and having the ability to maintain a log of where every part and piece of equipment has been throughout an entire voyage will also be invaluable in terms of improving efficiency as well as safety.

Intermec and NASA have been working together for years.

Intermec set up the world’s largest wireless LAN at Kennedy Space Center which allows NASA personnel to locate 300,000 pieces of mission critical equipment anywhere on the premises instantly.

Additionally, Intermec is working with NASA to apply 2D symbology barcodes to aerospace parts, making them easier to scan form virtually any distance and angle.

The two organisations are also working together to create read-through paint sensors to scan symbols hidden from view for aesthetic and security reasons.

Intermec and NASA have a long history of collaboration in creating new technologies that have uses in both space travel and earthbound use.

Participation in the MISSE programme is just the latest phase of that collaboration.

Intermec expects MISSE to show just how advanced RFID technology has become and how diverse the applications for it are.

“Intermec has proven itself in the past as willing to work with us to develop unique solutions to unique challenges,” Schramm says.

NASA is also working with Intermec and other partners on a futuristic solution that would enable RFID tags to be directly marked on parts using a thin film process.

Known as Vacuum Arc Vapor Deposition (VAVD), the system would enable all the materials needed for an RFID tag to be deposited directly onto an object.

That object could be anything from a fence post to a moon rock to a mission-critical part of the space shuttle. There is currently a prototype handheld device being tested which can carry out the VAVD process, which is being licensed by Chemco of Dalton, GA, USA.

The advantages of using VAVD for RFID tags are extensive.

Firstly, there is no risk of tags falling off as the tag itself will be built into the object it is tracking.

Additionally, every gram that is sent into space increase the cost of the voyage, and means something else, such as fuel or foodstuffs, must be sacrificed.

A tag applied with VAVD would weigh less than a soft tag, and much less than a hard tag, reducing this problem, especially when there are potentially thousands of tags needed for a mission. Potential suppliers are currently being evaluated for producing the VAVD equipment.

“VAVD could be an ideal solution to the problem of too much weight being added by rigid RFID tags and unreliability on a long term deployment, such as a mission to Mars, with soft tags,” Schramm says.

“This process, once perfected, also has a wealth of potential applications here on Earth in a whole range of industries.”

The reason VAVD could be so useful in a range of industries is the large volume of materials that can be marked directly using this process.

These include everything from silicon to copper to aluminium, and anything else used to create a circuit.

The other reason is that it can be used on such a huge range of objects. In tests, object as diverse as credit cards, feathers, glass, paper, and rock have been marked.

RFID is the first real life application of VAVD as a spray on circuit, so its success or failure will have a huge impact on the future of the technology.

Potentially though, VAVD will enable materials to be applied for the production of ultra-thin memory devices ranging from nanometres to microns thick.

The MISSE programme is just another new testing ground for another potential application of RFID technology.

The fact that NASA, which creates and utilises some of the most advanced technology on the planet has invested in sending the technology to space speaks volumes about RFID’s potential, and its future.

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