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Space Applications for Wireless Sensors

W.C. Wilson, G.M. Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center, US

Keywords: space, aerospace, wireless sensors, applications


Reducing the weight of spacecraft will reduce both fabrication and launch costs. The elimination of wiring and wiring harnesses reduces the total mass of the vehicle. Wireless sensor technology can reduce the weight and therefore the costs of spacecraft. The Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics survey identified that “self-powered, wireless microelectromechanical sensors” warrant attention over the next decade. Current wireless sensor systems have low data rates and require batteries. The environment of aerospace vehicles is often very harsh, with temperature extremes ranging from cryogenic to very high temperatures during re-entry. For example, X-37B mini unmanned shuttle will require high temperature sensors mounted on the structure, as well as cryogenic sensors for monitoring fuel tanks. Batteries do not work well at either temperature extreme. Also, sensors are typically located in internal structures with limited access, making the periodic changing of batteries costly and time consuming. Passive wireless sensors are needed that operate across an extremely large temperature range and do not require batteries. NASA recently instrumented an all Composite Crew Module for structural testing on the ground. Wireless sensors could have reduced the time to instrument the module and check out the sensor wiring. The European Space Agency (ESA), the Indian Space Agency and NASA are all investigating wireless sensor systems for operation on the lunar surface. In addition NASA is developing wireless sensor networks that can handle integrated system health monitoring of spacecraft with health monitoring astronauts. From ground tests to operation on orbit, to operation on the Moon, many applications could receive benefits from small, passive, wireless sensors. It is for these reasons that NASA is investigating the use of wireless technology for a variety of spacecraft applications. This paper will present a survey of opportunities for universities, industry, and the government to partner in developing new wireless sensors to address the future sensing needs for space vehicles.
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