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14 min read

2021 in Review: Highlights from NASA in Silicon Valley

With 2022 on the horizon, join us as we look back at the highlights of 2021 at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

1) NASA’s water-hunting Moon rover, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, made great strides this year. The VIPER team successfully completed practice runs of the full-scale assembly of the Artemis program’s lunar rover in VIPER’s new clean room. Two rounds of egress testing let rover drivers practice exiting the lander and rolling onto the rocky surface of the Moon. NASA also announced the landing site selected for the robotic rover, which will be delivered to the Nobile region of the Moon’s South Pole in late 2023 as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. NASA also chose eight new VIPER science team members and their proposals to expand and complement VIPER’s already existing science team and planned investigations. This year’s progress contributed to VIPER’s completion of its Critical Design Review, turning the mission’s focus toward construction of the rover beginning in late 2022.

A prototype of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, simulating a lander exit while on a lunar slope.

2) Artemis. The CAPSTONE CubeSat readied for its 2022 launch to a never-before-used orbit near the Moon. CAPSTONE is a pathfinder for NASA’s Moon-orbiting Gateway outpost that is part of NASA’s Artemis program. It will help verify the dynamics of a unique orbit and demonstrate innovative navigation technology and communications capabilities

An integral part of ensuring astronaut safety is Orion’s launch abort system, which can pull the crew module away from the rocket in a split-second if an emergency arises during launch. Researchers at Ames are using cutting-edge computational fluid dynamics software to better understand how different abort scenarios affect vibration levels. 

When NASA astronauts return from the Moon during the Artemis missions, their spacecraft – the Orion crew capsule – will blast through Earth’s atmosphere so fast it will trigger two forms of heating. For the first time, Ames tested Orion’s heat shield material with both kinds of heating – the most realistic tests to date. Speaking of heat shields, Ames also tested an “umbrella-like” deployable heat shield design called ADEPT, that will make it safer for larger vehicles to safely pass through the atmosphere of distant locations, like Mars and beyond.

NASA/Ames Research Center/Timothy Sandstrom, Cetin Kiris, Francois Cadieux, Michael Barad

3) Robotics. NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station worked with free-flying Astrobee robot Honey to test a technology inspired by gecko feet. The “gecko gripper” allows robots in space to grab onto surfaces – without applying force to stick – and then detach on demand. Engineers also tested Astrobee Bumble’s ability to investigate a simulated anomaly, conduct a survey, and untangle itself using ISAAC, the Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking software. NASA astronauts unpacked, conducted health checks, and got Astrobee Queen up-and-floating for the first time too. Enhanced robotic assistants and autonomous operations means crew can spend less time on routine chores and focus more on tasks only humans can do. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met robot Honey during a special phone call to NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Kate Rubins aboard the space station to find out what it’s like to do science in space.

NASA astronaut Victor Glover works with an Astrobee robot to test a mechanical adhesive technology inspired by gecko feet.

4) Aeronautics: Onwards and upwards! NASA tested, rolled out, and wrapped up a spectrum of new technologies to improve aircraft safety and efficiency while expanding the ability to coordinate air traffic. NASA’s Airspace Technology Demonstration 2, or ATD-2, project developed technologies that predict airport traffic conditions to determine the best time for departing flights to push back from the gate. By September 2021, software developed by ATD-2 had reduced greenhouse gas emissions by saving more than one million gallons of jet fuel. It also spared travelers 933 hours in flight delays, among other concrete benefits.

NASA also officially wrapped up the unmanned aircraft systems traffic management, or UTM project. UTMinvented a totally new way to handle the airspace: an automated, decentralized style of air traffic management where multiple parties, from government to commercial industry, work together to provide services. Since then, several efforts have emerged to apply UTM’s concepts and capabilities to even more realms such as managing traffic for future flying taxis. 

The Air Traffic Management eXploration, or ATM-X, project supported and collected data during NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign flight tests and Integrated Dry Run test, including tests of a prototype all-electric vertical takeoff and landing air taxi vehicle. The goal is to understand how new aircraft serving as air taxis will need to operate. To ensure air taxi passengers enjoy a safe and smooth ride, NASA is using high-performance computer simulations to study a system that could suppress wobbles caused by sudden gusts of wind.

A black drone with four rotors flies above a city street, with traffic lights, buildings, and cars in the background.
NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

5) Discoveries of Cosmic Proportions. Over the last year, Ames scientists have made several discoveries about the cosmos! Using the data gathered during NASA’s Kepler and follow-on K2 mission, a deep neural network called ExoMiner helped add over 300 newly validated exoplanets – or planets beyond our solar system – to the current list of over 4,000 worlds. ExoMiner uses NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer, which also helps scientists understand the universe by simulating cosmic phenomena. A recent study simulated a galaxy designed to be similar to our own Milky Way colliding with a smaller galaxy, revealing how such collisions create a “fossil record” of information that can help researchers peer into cosmic history.

Galaxies across the universe continue to be observed by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, NASA’s telescope on a plane. Recently, SOFIA studied the formation of stars in our own galaxy’s center, made key observations of never-before-seen components of a spiral galaxy, provided new insights into how the early universe may have been shaped, and enabled the first clear look into a star-forming region in the Milky Way. This research is helping us understand more about some of the most complex cosmic structures we know of. The team also had the opportunity to fly from the Southern Hemisphere by temporarily changing their base of operations to French Polynesia, allowing SOFIA to make observations of atomic oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Colour composite image of Centaurus A, revealing the lobes in red and orange and jets emanating from the active galaxy’s center.
NASA/Chandra/R. Kraft; JPL-Caltech/J. Keene

6) NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter successfully demonstrated the first powered controlled flight on another planet. Ingenuity was designed and developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The expertise of aeronautical engineers at Ames led JPL to partner with the center and NASA’s Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology project from the moment work on Ingenuity started. Ames engineers provided performance predictions, computational fluid dynamics analysis, and facility installation studies, as well as system identification, development, and validation. Ames also contributed to the system integration testing of a full-scale Mars helicopter prototype, two engineering development models, and the flight model. Ames continues to partner with JPL to consider future Mars rotorcraft designs.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter hovers over the Martian surface

7) Our STEReO project – Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations – was busy this fall learning from wildland firefighters how small, autonomous aircraft could help battle blazes. Working in partnership with firefighting experts, earlier this year the STEReO team tested and demonstrated elements of the toolkit it’s designing for pilots flying unmanned aircraft systems – also called UAS or drones – as part of wildfire response efforts. STEReO aims to modernize the response to many kinds of disasters by allowing smart UAS to play a bigger role.

NASA drone pilot Jonas Jonsson flying a drone in a field.
NASA drone pilot Jonas Jonsson flies an unmanned aircraft during a flight demonstration in California in May 2021. STEReO’s partners at CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service flew wildfire-fighting aircraft in coordination with NASA drones like this one using STEReO’s system to keep all parties informed of the ongoing operations.
NASA / Joel Kowsky

8) S-MODE. After a successful test run, in October NASA deployed aircraft, a research vessel, and several kinds of autonomous ocean robots to study small ocean whirlpools, eddies, and currents. The Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment, or S-MODE, team aims to understand the role these ocean processes play in the movement of heat, nutrients, oxygen, and carbon, which travel from the ocean surface to the deeper ocean layers below. This will help scientists better understand how Earth’s oceans slow the impact of global warming and impact the Earth climate system.

Animation showing the research ship and some of the gliders and floats the S-MODE team will use to study small-scale ocean whirlpools, currents and eddies.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Scientific Visualization Studio

9) Tagging in NASA to Help Track Otters. Sea otters are important mammals in marine ecosystems and are essential to maintaining balance in kelp forests. Understanding how otters and other animals interact with their changing environments is critical for deciphering the impacts of climate change on wildlife and ecosystems.

That’s why the Space Shop, a maker space at Ames, is developing a modern tracking device designed to humanely fit onto the hind flippers of sea otters. This new and improved tracking device is still being tested, but once it’s ready to be deployed, scientists will be able to track sea otter populations with far more precision and frequency than was previously possible. In the future, the same technology could be used to track other wild animals.

Two sea otters in the water, surrounded by kelp.
Monterey Bay Aquarium

10) “Sniffing” Out COVID-19. As COVID-19 continues to be a part of our lives, the more tools that can be developed to manage the virus’ spread in our communities the better. E-Nose is a smartphone-based device derived from technology used to help monitor air quality inside spacecraft, but NASA is advancing it to detect COVID-19 by “sniffing” a person’s breath. E-Nose could help mitigate community spread of the virus in a manner similar to how temperature checks are used to screen individuals before entering shared indoor spaces, such as a local grocery store or restaurant. The device is almost ready for field testing, after which the project will look into next steps for making the technology more widely available.

A woman wearing a mask holding up a small, bottle-like device while wearing gloves.
NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

11) BioSentinel: A Step Closer to Artemis Deep Space Flight. This year the BioSentinel team completed assembly and a battery of tests on their spacecraft before packing it up and shipping it off to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There, the spacecraft was placed in its CubeSat dispenser. This assembly was later installed in the Space Launch System rocket’s Orion stage adaptor where BioSentinel now occupies its CubeSat seat for a ride to deep space aboard Artemis I.

BioSentinel will fly past the Moon and into an orbit around the Sun. It will perform the first long-duration biology experiment in deep space. Its six-month science investigation will study the effects of deep space radiation on a living organism, yeast. Because human cells and yeast cells have many similar biological mechanisms, BioSentinel’s experiments can help us better understand the radiation risks for long-duration deep space human exploration.

Illustration of the BioSentinel spacecraft, flying past the Moon with the CubeSat's solar arrays fully deployed, facing the Sun.
NASA/Daniel Rutter

12) Good Things Come in Small Packages: Answers to NASA’s Science and Technology Questions. NASA researchers are sending a myriad of small science and technology payloads to orbit or the edge of space to address big science questions and help drive future exploration missions. 

NASA is keen to ensure spacecraft don’t accidentally contaminate Mars if we’re ever to discover whether Martian life exists. The Microbes in Atmosphere for Radiation, Survival and Biological Outcomes Experiment,or MARSBOx, tested if any common Earth microorganisms could actually persist on a spacecraft to Mars. MARSBOx flew millions of tiny microbes to the Mars-like environment found 20 miles above the surface of the Earth. Researchers found that two of the four types of microorganisms flown in this experiment could temporarily withstand these harsh conditions.

How do clouds contribute to climate patterns on Earth, as well as other planets like Saturn, Venus, and Mars? This question motivated NASA’s development of a new nephelometer called NephEx – short for Nephelometer Experiment – a sensor that measures details about the interior composition of clouds. The compact device is being tested here on Earth and could one day be deployed to the far reaches of space to advance our understanding of climate patterns across our solar system.

New small spacecraft technologies could transform future deep space mission capabilities and bring down mission costs. NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator, or PTD, series of missions demonstrates novel CubeSat technologies in low-Earth orbit. The first mission of the series, PTD-1, launched a 6-unit CubeSat – roughly the size of a shoebox – to demonstrate a new type of propulsion system that uses water as fuel. The system produces gas propellants – a mix of hydrogen and oxygen – from water and burns them in a tiny rocket engine for thrust.

TechEdSat-7 is one of a series of nanosatellite flight missions that helps to teach a new generation of researchers and engineers how to execute flight experiments. These missions test cutting-edge technologies relevant to the overall goal of using cost-effective CubeSats – bringing small payloads from orbit back to Earth or to the surface of other worlds, such as Mars. Technologies packed into TechEdSat-7’s flight include a novel exo-brake, a deployable device that applies drag to the spacecraft to cause deorbit. 

NASA’s Payload Accelerator for CubeSat Endeavors, or PACE, initiative is finding ways to speed up the process of getting small spacecraft technologies ready for prime time. NASA needs to ensure new technologies are sufficiently vetted to stand up to the extreme demands of the space environment before implementing them for an exploration mission. Flight tests are key to the vetting process, which culminates with a technology demonstration in space. V-R3x, the first technology with flight tests facilitated by PACE, used a swarm of three CubeSats – each about the size of a coffee mug – to demonstrate new technologies and techniques for radio networking and navigation in low-Earth orbit. In a separate flight test, V-R3x launched a single CubeSat on a high-altitude balloon and deployed four units on the ground to communicate with the satellite at the upper edges of the atmosphere – over 100,000 feet away. This flight enabled the researchers to evaluate V-R3x’s advanced swarm communications by forming a mesh network between multiple spacecraft and ground stations.

Person wearing a mask and hair net working on a small device.
NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

13) Biosciences. To keep astronauts healthy during multi-year missions on the Moon or Mars, NASA is testing a concept that uses microorganisms to produce vital nutrients in space so that astronauts can drink them down as well as an “enhanced” spaceflight diet. Ames also supports experiments aboard the space station to study which genes help tardigrades – also known as water bears – tolerate extreme environments, learn more precisely what causes space-related loss of muscle strength, and monitor for potentially disease-causing bacteria and fungi

Astronaut aboard the space station wearing white gloves and using a white wipe to collect a sample from the wall

14) Ames expanded and celebrated its engagement with students and neighbors in the surrounding Bay Area community. The Ames Exploration Encounter commemorated its 30th anniversary of inspiring future scientists and engineers through direct, hands-on experience. Ames also debuted the NASA Experience exhibit at Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California. This exhibit serves as a new visitor center for Ames and provides a dynamic and interactive space for the public to learn more about local contributions to space exploration across the Ames’ 80-year history and a look into current and future projects. 

The NASA Experience at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California.
NASA/Dominic Hart

And there’s more in store with the much-anticipated launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will be broadcast live on NASA TV, the NASA app, and the agency’s website. Members of the public also can register to attend the launch virtually. NASA’s virtual guest program for the mission includes curated launch resources, notifications about related opportunities or changes, and a stamp for the NASA virtual guest passport following a successful launch.

For news media:

Members of the news media interested in covering these topics should reach out to the NASA Ames newsroom.