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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
The NASA research team had already developed estimated peak acoustic loads at a variety of distances from the launch pad, and compared that information against prior estimates to ascertain the level of accuracy.

More recently, the researchers placed the sensor array about 14,000 feet from liftoff at Cape Canaveral during the Sept. 10 launch of the agency's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft. By capturing vibration levels, Margasahayam says he has been able to calculate the acoustic levels that caused that vibration.

According to Margasahayam, the next step is to use tags with strain sensors (instead of vibration sensors) to measure the amount of deformation to containers known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPV), used to store pressurized fluids. Failure of these systems poses a significant threat to mission safety, he says. Strain sensors could also be applied to steel shoes on crawler transporters that move rockets to the launch pad.

Additionally, the sensors may be used in close proximity to the launch pads. At present, the concern is that the sensor tags' RF transmissions could interfere with communications between astronauts and ground control as the countdown begins. However, Margasahayam says, the technology could be modified to remotely instruct the system to cease transmission during the countdown immediately prior to liftoff.

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