Kennedy News

Tracy Young
Kennedy Space Center
(321) 867-2468

May 15, 2003
RELEASE : 36-03
KSC Volcanic Research May Enhance Shuttle Gas Detection Systems
A research and development team from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) recently used a new hazardous gas detection system to study volcanic emissions in Costa Rica. The new prototype system named the Aircraft-based Volcanic Emission Mass Spectrometer (AVEMS) also will have a direct application to the Space Shuttle Program.

The AVEMS is a step toward an advanced system that will be able to detect toxic gas leaks and emissions in the Space Shuttle aft engine compartment and the crew compartment, providing an added level of protection for the astronauts and the vehicle.

"For Shuttle applications, it was especially helpful that we had the opportunity to fly the system at altitudes of up to about 40,000 feet," said Dr. Richard Arkin, ASRC Aerospace Corp.'s lead designer.

Arkin, along with NASA project lead, Dr. Tim Griffin and members of the KSC team used AVEMS to analyze gases vented from the Turrialba volcano in Costa Rica. The tests were conducted from the air and in the volcano's crater.

The study was the first to sample and quantitatively analyze fresh volcanic gases in their natural state. Active vents in volcanoes, called fumaroles, produce toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide which, if too concentrated, can be fatal.

"Hikers on the volcanoes sometimes get cold then are attracted to the warm vents. When a large vent is producing massive amounts of carbon dioxide, the carbon dioxide displaces oxygen, which could be fatal to the hikers nearby," said Griffin.

The new system shows promise for commercial applications in a variety of environments and industries such as semiconductor, petrochemical, automotive, refrigeration and cathode ray tube. The technology could be used for breath and blood analysis as well as for monitoring air quality in the workplace.

"Mass spectrometer technology could be used to ensure public safety and equipment protection in so many areas," said Griffin. "Previous mass spectrometer systems have been so expensive and bulky that their use was limited to laboratories." The new system is small and mobile and has the ability to easily and accurately produce in-depth data.

The Costa Rican project was part of the Costa Rican Airborne Research and Technology (CARTA) mission and was funded through the National Science Foundation. Costa Rica USA (CRUSA), a consortium of Costa Rican universities and government agencies, partnered on the project.

The inspiration for international cooperation that gave rise to the study came from a discussion between NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz and University of Costa Rica professor Dr. Jorge Andres Diaz who previously served as a visiting scientist at KSC.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center provided the WB-57F aircraft and support for the nine research flights in the hazardous gas study. Ames Research Center (ARC) provided infrared and visible photography as well as multispectral imaging on the mission.

Photos of the mission can be accessed by searching AVEMS at http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov .

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