By Candace Stuart
Small Times Senior Staff Writer

CHICAGO, June 6, 2001 — NASA to industry: Make it small and we will use it. Be small and we will use you.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is counting on small tech to help it explore the planetary system and


A MEMS-based hydrogen sensor made by
Makel Engineering Inc. has been used in the
Space Shuttle Discovery to detect potentially
deadly fuel leaks.
outer cosmos, two NASA technology directors said Tuesday in Chicago. And the agency is turning more and more to start-ups and small businesses developing MEMS and other innovations to get those products in its space missions.

“The smaller you can make it the more interested we are,” said Harley Thronson, technology director of NASA’s Office of Space Science and keynote speaker at the 2001 Sensors Expo. MEMS sensors and microsystems help NASA design smaller, lighter weight and more energy- and cost-efficient rockets, satellites and space probes.

“We will be very grateful if people can save us mass in our detectors,” Thronson said. “We don’t have a lot of space to put them into.”

Speaking later to Small Times, Thronson said NASA cultivates relationships with emerging businesses, which can benefit from the agency’s support and guidance as they enter the profitless initial development phase.

“In some ways we prefer to work with a small company,” Thronson said. “They’re more versatile, easier to work with, more adaptable and lighter on their feet.”

NASA realizes its smaller partners need more than a NASA contract to survive, which is why it offers grants – usually about $100,000 but up to $1 million – to help them develop a device for space application.

“That $100,000 can make a difference for a small company,” he said, “but it is not so attractive to a Lockheed Martin.”

Robert Norwood, NASA’s director of commercial technology, said the U.S. space agency funds about 200 companies – not all small tech – through its Small Business Innovation Research Program and regional enterprises such as the Glennan Microsystems Initiative in Ohio. Its goal is to develop a technology that is useful for NASA but can be adapted for commercial applications.

“We don’t develop products,” Norwood said. “We develop technologies. It’s that underlying technology that goes into products. What we’re able to do is help companies retire that technology risk.”

In his speech, Thronson outlined NASA’s upcoming projects and needs, and encouraged industry representatives in the audience to look at how their products might be adapted for NASA uses. Among them:

* Sensors that can analyze Mars’ chemical elements and minerals. For instance, Thronson said, sensors that incorporate infrared spectrometry could detect any signs of oxygen, carbon dioxide or water beneath the planet’s surface, ingredients scientists say are necessary for life. Spectrometers don’t detect the actual elements and molecules, but instead a distinctive spectral signature.

“This is a keystone in the Mars exploration program,” he said. “It is the planet most similar to Earth. We know it was once warm, wet and had a thicker atmosphere. Did life ever arise on Mars, or – this is a long shot – does it still exist?”

* The next generation of telescopes launched in space to help astronomers peer into the cosmos for clues of how the Earth formed, how it will evolve and the entities that exist far beyond it. Thronson, who also serves on NASA’s Decade Planning Team and its Space Infrared Telescope Facility, said NASA is looking to support small infrared technologies that can detect very weak light signals from very far away.

Thronson, who was a professor of astronomy for 16 years at the University of Wyoming before he joined NASA, promised to quiz the audience at the end of his talk. Instead, he and other NASA personnel visited the Sensors Expo exhibit arena, on a mission to meet possible industrial collaborators.

A few NASA collaborators were already there, including Makel Engineering Inc. (MEI), an 18-person sensor manufacturer in Chico, Calif. MEI’s hydrogen sensor has been used in the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Hyper-X flight vehicle to monitor for potentially catastrophic hydrogen leaks.

Hydrogen is used as a fuel source in space apparatus. Leaks of the volatile substance can cause extreme damage, as happened in 1986 when hydrogen and oxygen vapors leaked in the external tank and right solid rocket booster of the Space Shuttle Challenger, leading to an explosion that killed all seven crew members.

MEI, which owner Darby Makel launched in the mid-1990s, recently joined NASA’s Glennan Initiative, a project that links NASA and university researchers with industries making or needing microsystems. One of the initiative’s goals is to encourage MEMS and microsystem designers to build devices with silicon carbide, a material MEI plans to integrate into future products. The state of Ohio, which sees itself filling a niche for silicon carbide MEMS and microsystems, and NASA fund the initiative.

MEI adapted its hydrogen sensor for use in hydrogen-filled weather balloons and an alternative fuel vehicle built by Ford Motor Co. that burns natural gas. It also offers a cooling technology that can augment high-power electronic parts such as switching devices, and is working with NASA to design an on-site fuel production technology and miniature chemical reactors for its Mars missions.

MEI also hopes to integrate the hydrogen sensor into fuel cells that one day may be used to power passenger vehicles. Fuel cells use oxygen and hydrogen to create energy.

“If (fuel cells) becomes a viable market, that will be a large market,” said MEI engineer Susana Carranza.

Norwood said that NASA expects more MEMS-based companies to convert their NASA projects into commercial products. “There just aren’t that many MEMS out there yet,” he said. “Over the next couple of years, I guarantee there will be.”



Candace Stuart at or call 734-994-1106, ext. 233.


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