Engineers at NASA recently demonstrated that a nanotechnology-based electronic sensor can be used to monitor trace gases inside a spaceship.
The technology used to build the device could lead to smaller, more capable environmental monitors and smoke detectors in future crew habitats.
NASA's Nano ChemSensor Unit hitched a ride to Earth orbit on March 9, 2007, as a secondary payload experiment on the US Naval Academy's MidSTAR-1 satellite. The sensor test itself was conducted on May 24.
‘We demonstrated that nanosensors can survive in space conditions and the extreme vibrations and gravity change that occur during launch,’ said Jing Li, a scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley and the principal investigator for the test.
On long missions in space, harmful chemical contaminants may build up gradually in the crew's air supply. Nanosensors will be able to detect minute amounts of these contaminants and alert the crew that there may be a problem.
To conduct the sensor test in space, nitrogen gas containing 20 parts per million of nitrogen dioxide was injected into a small chamber. The chamber also held a computer test chip with 32 nanosensors. The test measured the change in electricity passing through the nanosensors after the nitrogen dioxide and the sensing materials made contact.
Li's experiment also helped scientists learn how well a nanosensor could endure microgravity, heat and cosmic radiation in space.
Less than a half-inch across, the test chip is smaller and less costly than other analytical instruments that could be used for the same measurements.