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RFID Sensors Help NASA to Monitor Conditions in Antarctica
The NASA Johnson Space Center and the National Science Foundation are testing an inflatable habitat that uses RFID tags combined with sensors to transmit temperature and air-pressure data to the United States.
Jun 12, 2008—At NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC), researchers are employing RFID technology to bring data home from Antarctica. This project is part of an experiment implemented by NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Apollo lunar spacesuit makers ILC Dover, to test an inflatable habitat, and to determine whether such a structure might provide a comfortable living space in the Arctic and Antarctica regions, as well as for explorers on the moon or, eventually, on Mars.
NASA astronauts are expected to resume exploration of the moon in 2020, and the organization hopes to be able to provide living space by that time. To test an inflatable habitat that is lightweight and easy to transport, but that can withstand the harsh conditions on another planet, NASA is beginning on Earth—in Antarctica. NASA is testing how well an inflatable habitat would survive in such harsh conditions, and how well it would provide shelter that could support human life inside. As part of that research, it is also testing sensor systems that measure the conditions around and within the structure, as well as the ability to transmit those sensor measurements back to researchers in the United States.
The habitat measures internally at 16 by 24 feet, and was developed by NASA, the NSF and ILC Dover. In January 2008—summertime in Antarctica—the habitat was first inflated and installed near McMurdo Station. At the same time, instrumentation engineers David Scott Hafermalz and Todd Hong installed a sensor system to measure temperature and air pressure, as well as carbon dioxide level, humidity, power consumption and weather conditions. For the temperature and air pressure sensors, researchers are utilizing two RFID systems—one passive, the other active.
Researchers hope to maintain an internal temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius), despite the weather conditions outside. Currently, at the onset of winter, the temperature outside the habitat is about -33 degrees Fahrenheit (56 degrees Celsius) and dropping, with snowdrifts piling up on top. JSC researchers installed temperature sensors within the structure's bladder (air-filled walls), as well as in the interior living space. They also installed two webcams, one of which can be zoomed in to view instrumentation such as a light indicating the instruments are functioning, and to see the screens of a laptop and PC storing data from the sensors. Much of the instrumentation consisted of such off-the-shelf devices as temperature and pressure gauges, Hafermalz says, while others were designed specifically for this purpose.
"We wanted sensors to be deployed independently," Hafermalz says, meaning he and Hong attached RFID tags in enclosed pockets on the habitat wall, connected to sensors after the habitat was inflated in Antarctica, while others were imbedded in the structure as it was being manufactured. "And we were looking for things that were robust enough to handle the packing and shipping, and that would be low-maintenance."
Researchers required equipment that would make it possible for them to monitor conditions in the structure at Johnson Space Center without calling upon support from employees stationed at the McMurdo base, who are busy with other responsibilities. "We wanted their support to be minimal," Hafermalz says, "so we needed something that would be maintenance-free." All these needs, he adds, pointed to RFID technology.
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