Space Spinoff Technology Works on Earth, Too

NASA spinoffs
Astronaut Joe Acaba, Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin aboard the Soyuz spacecraft preparing for their return to Earth on September 17, 2012. They are wearing G-suits to prevent blood from pooling in the lower body, which can cause dizziness as their bodies readjust to the pull of Earth’s gravity. Spinoffs of these suits are helping new mothers on Earth avoid obstretric hemorrhages that threaten their lives. NASA

Did you know that the chip in your cell phone is the result of space exploration? Or, that the breast-cancer screening women get was first developed for sensors on space missions? It's true. Innovative technologies that get made for space missions end up being as useful (and sometimes even more useful) on Earth than their inventors first intended. Cutting-edge technology shows up around our planet, in our cities, our homes, and even in our bodies.

Not only will it be used in future space exploration missions, such as lunar exploration and asteroid mining, but will find homes on Earth, too. Let's take a look at a few space-age gadgets that are making life better for all of us here on old Terra.

Space Tech in Your Hand

Take a look at your cell phone. It probably has a camera, which has an image sensor based on CMOS technology that got its start at NASA. CMOS stands for "complementary metal-oxide semiconductor", and it is used in imaging devices. The space agency has always been interested in capturing images of dim and distant objects in space, and the development of charge-coupled-device ​imagers (we call them CCDs) stems from the need to see planets, stars, and galaxies. They work very well that way, and technologies based on CCDs populate new generations of cameras, including the ones in cell phones.

Open Wide, Insert CMOS

One of the latest innovations based on the CMOS design is something that will make your next dentist visit a bit easier.

That's because new dental imagers are being built with CMOS-based sensors in them. Think about it: your mouth is a dark, dim environment, and until recently, only x-ray machines could penetrate the teeth and give dentists a look at their condition. The array of pixels in a digital imager based on CMOS designs can deliver excellent visions of teeth, lower a patient's exposure to x-rays, and give dentists much better "maps" of a patient's teeth and mouth.

What Space Technology Reveals about Your Bones

One of the biggest effects that space travel can have on people zeroes in on their bones. Astronauts in long-duration missions have suffered a marked loss of bone density. That's why we often see pictures of astronauts exercising in space aboard the International Space Station. It's not just to stay in shape, it's also to keep bone density from deteriorating. To keep tabs on that bone loss, ground-based MDs, NASA needed equipment that would study bone health in microgravity. A technique called dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA), done by a device light enough to take to the space station, was the answer. The same technique and equipment will most certainly find its way into medical labs here on Earth for researchers looking into bone deterioration and muscle atrophy.

Monitoring Pollution from Vehicles

Vehicle CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions are a huge factor in the rise of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere. This blanket of gases consists mostly of nitrogen, plus oxygen and carbon dioxide and formed early in Earth's infancy. It may have formed more than once, and was affected by (among other things) impacts, volcanism, and the rise of life.

While life on our planet depends and exhales this gas, understanding its role in our atmosphere and climate is still under intense study. One mystery: how CO2 gets concentrated in the atmosphere and then dissipates over the course of a year is not well-understood.

Instruments in space (such as weather satellites and other sensors) can measure the year-round cycle of CO2 in our atmosphere and three missions are getting ready to launch to do just that. However, there's another use for this technology that can be deployed right here on Earth: measuring vehicle emissions where the vehicles are, rather than requiring them to visit inspection stations each year. A new instrument has been developed that uses lasers to do this work, zeroing in not just on CO2, but also methane, ethane, and nitric acid more accurately and quickly than older, less-efficient methods.

Several states in the U.S. have already purchased this technology, and more will jump on board.

Saving a New Mother's Life

Every year tens of thousands of women around the world (many in developing countries), die from the effects of hemorrhage after giving birth. A new NASA spinoff technology based on a "G-suit" spacesuit is now being used to help save the lives of new moms threatened by hemorrhages. A team of researchers at NASA Ames modified a G-suit so that it could supply a range of pressures and used it on a woman suffering from postpartum bleeding. This application of a technology used to keep astronauts safe on their journey back to Earth after spending time in space, is a lifesaver for new moms who don't always have access to blood transfusions or medications quickly after giving birth. Since the development of a product called LifeWrap, more than 20 countries have invested in technology based on the same thing that astronauts routinely use as they return home.

Clean Drinking Water is a Must

Many people on our planet do not have access to clean drinking water. Or, they live in municipalities where the water delivery infrastructure is deteriorating (and local officials have not taken action to fix it, as in Flint, MI). Access to safe, clean water is a human right. It's also something that astronauts in space continually face: having enough water to drink while orbiting several hundred miles above the planet. NASA has created ever-more-efficient ways to recycle water on such places as the International Space Station, and much of the technology relies on filtration.

At this time, the agency's astronauts use some of the best filtration tech in the world.

Certain fibers used in nanomaterials also make good water filters. NASA has taken advantage of those materials to provide the ISS with good drinking water. And, it turns out that the same filters NASA uses can also be used by people working on the ground: emergency workers, communities in developing countries, backpackers, and others who have a need to filter and use water where they are. The latest filters not only take out many impurities in water, but also remove viruses and bacteria. Eventually, companies selling this technology will supply it to homeowners in remote locations and possibly even to cities where water delivery systems are in need of drastic repair.

From Farming to Skiing, Nuclear Energy, to Industrial Productivity

Those are just a few of the many, many technologies that space exploration enables for use here on Earth. From technology to strengthen race car bodies, improve a skier's vision, improve flow in nuclear plants, and GPS-enabled driverless tractors, machines and techniques developed for use in space are having an incredibly huge effect on medicine, industry, farming, recreation, consumer goods, and much more. Money spent on space exploration isn't spent "up there"; it goes for machines and people who work right here on Earth!  Want to know more about space spinoffs? Visit NASA's spinoff pages for many more technologies making life easier here on Earth. And, read here for more examples of how space exploration can benefit you.