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NASA Launches RFID to Track Vibrations

The space agency is using active RFID sensor tags to transmit data to a reader and a PC, where the information can be reviewed in order to determine the sound and vibration levels generated by a rocket launch.
By Claire Swedberg
Each MicroStrain sensor includes an active 2.4 GHz tag that transmits using the IEEE 802.15.4 air-interface protocol (the same standard on which ZigBee is based) at a distance of up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles). The tag receives sensor data and transmits that information 256 times per second.

NASA first deployed the system during the launches of the STS-134 mission of the space shuttle Endeavour and the STS-135 mission of the shuttle Atlantis, which occurred at the Kennedy Space Center in May and July of this year. In both cases, NASA utilized three MicroStrain sensors mounted on an aluminum plate, placed approximately 7,000 feet from the liftoff location at Pad 39A (KSC's other launch pad, Pad 39B, was inactive at the time). In this way, Margasahayam says, researchers could study vibro-acoustics in a "far field" area in which acoustics' effect on structures is of interest. The reader was installed in an outbuilding located about 200 feet from the sensors, says Todd Nordblom, MicroStrain's grants and applications specialist.


NASA engineer Ravi Margasahayam, at a shuttle inspection in April

Because no one could approach the site for several days post-launch, the sensors continued to collect data over the course of three to five days, loading the PC with approximately 3 gigabytes of data. Once that computer was retrieved, the collected information was forwarded to the SensorCloud server, where MicroStrain engineers and NASA researchers have developed algorithms to screen through that information and capture key threshold data, such as the times at which vibration reached specific levels during liftoff.

NASA's researchers used the measured vibration levels on the test article (the aluminum plate) to compute estimated peak acoustic loads. That data was then compared against previous estimates of far-field acoustic levels, in order to determine their accuracy. The results showed good correlation, Margasahayam says, thereby validating the test data and NASA's analysis.

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