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John Bluck
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Phone: 650/604-5026 or 650/604-9000

Dave Jonta
The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, Calif.
Phone: 310/336-5041
April 13, 2005
NASA and Aerospace Corp to Make 'Black Box' for Spacecraft
NASA and a nonprofit partner recently agreed to develop the first 'black box' for spacecraft and hope to test a prototype as early as 2006.

A joint program between NASA and The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, Calif., will develop a spacecraft black box, among many other low-cost, miniature space systems, according to a NASA-Aerospace agreement. Black boxes carried on aircraft record airplane data such as speed, altitude and crew conversations. This information can be recovered after an accident to help investigators learn the cause of a mishap. The black box often includes a beacon that helps investigators find the box.

"Microspacecraft that can collect spaceflight data and return it to Earth will enhance space travel reliability through better designs," said G. Scott Hubbard, director of NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley. Hubbard recently signed an agreement with William F. Ballhaus Jr., Aerospace president and chief executive officer, to develop the black box.

"People had not figured how to put black boxes on spacecraft before because the boxes would tend to burn up during reentry," said Dan Rasky, a scientist at NASA Ames. Ames is contributing its spacecraft heat shield expertise to the development effort.

"One of the first uses of these spacecraft black boxes may be on the Crew Exploration Vehicle," Rasky explained. The Crew Exploration Vehicle is a future spaceship that NASA plans to use to fly people to the moon and beyond.

The basis for the effort to develop low-cost spacecraft technologies is the Reentry Breakup Recorder (REBR), a one-foot (0.3-meter) diameter, 2.2-pound (one-kilogram) device that will have a heat shield, batteries, data recorder, sensors and a transmitter.

The REBR has been under development at Aerospace for the past several years, with NASA Ames responsible for the entry system.

The REBR is designed to collect data as a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere and breaks apart due to aerodynamic heating and loads. After the high-speed portion of the reentry, the REBR would 'phone home' to relay data by satellite prior to impact. The spacecraft black box is only one of many small, lightweight, low-cost devices the partners plan to develop. These new devices would allow NASA and The Aerospace Corporation to flight test miniature sensor systems to gather temperature, pressure and other data, or to validate thermal protection systems for human missions.

"Aerospace may use these devices to gather data during the reentry and breakup of space hardware to validate and calibrate models, and NASA Ames may use them to test new heat shield materials and sensors," said Ethiraj Venkatapathy, planetary exploration technology manager at NASA Ames. The team is using nanotechnology to develop very small, inexpensive sensors.

Nanotechnology is the creation of materials, devices and systems through the control of matter on the nanometer scale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, roughly 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. "Nanotechnology could lead to changes in almost everything from computers and medicine to automobiles and spacecraft," said James Arnold, a scientist with the NASA Ames Center for Nanotechnology.

"The initial focus of the collaboration will be on development of small reentry probes," said William Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corporation and Aerospace lead for the effort.

"Similar technologies could be used on an Ames concept called Scout Probes for Exploration," Rasky said. "This concept makes use of small entry probes to gather information and reconnaissance on atmospheric conditions, surface conditions and hazards. These probes also could serve as landing beacons for following piloted or robotic vehicles. Scout Probes for Exploration could be a critical new capability for reducing risks encountered with remote exploration landings," Rasky ventured.

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