Some modern conveniences that we take for granted came from the most unlikely source: space. NASA is best known for sending humans to the Moon and exploring other worlds in our solar system. Yet while the agency’s primary goal is space exploration, it has provided many unexpected side benefits since its formation in 1958. The Apollo program alone led to the creation of everything from CAT scans and cordless tools to advances in satellites and television technology. But the agency is still lending invaluable assistance in many fields today. Here are a few unexpected but unique functions NASA has performed in recent years.
10. The Chilean Miner Rescue
In 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped underground in a mining disaster. At the request of the Chilean Space Agency, the U.S. sent an emergency team from NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center to assist with the rescue. Why bring in NASA for a mining disaster? The space agency is well known for its expertise in defining survival requirements, designing unique vehicles and equipment, and caring for individuals who are exposed to harsh environments. The team brainstormed ideas to locate and communicate with the trapped miners and helped to design the system eventually used in the rescue. The miners were successfully brought back to the surface one by one on Oct. 13, 2010, after spending more than two months underground.
9. NASA Tracks ‘Snowmageddon 2016’ From Space
In January 2016, one of the largest snowstorms on record pummeled the U.S. East Coast. A NASA satellite, Suomi NPP, provided images of Winter Storm Jonas from space and provided key information concerning the growth and impact of the storm. Launched in 2011, the $1.5 billion NPP is the first satellite designed to gather data for both short-term weather forecasts and long-term climate models. It also will help NASA develop the next generation of Earth-observing satellites. Oh, about the abbreviation: NPP stands for National polar-orbiting operational environmental satellite system Preparatory Project.
8. Solving a Lake Tahoe Mystery
Located on the California/Nevada border in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is famed for its crystal-clear waters. But that famed clarity has waned since the 1960s, and NASA technology has helped researchers search for the cause. In addition to monitoring the lake by satellite, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory operates four buoys on the lake. While NASA placed the buoys to help it calibrate satellite data (i.e., is the satellite recording the same lake temperature as the buoys?) the information has helped scientists study Tahoe’s water quality. In 2015, NASA researchers announced their findings on why Lake Tahoe’s water is so blue. As it turns out, algae, not water clarity, is the key; the less algae there is in a certain area, the bluer the water.
7. Tracking Ticks
As climate change becomes a reality, tick season in the southern United States creeps northward and extends in duration each year. University of Alabama students working with NASA researchers have documented the spread of Lyme-disease carrying ticks … via satellite. NASA’s DEVELOP (Digital Earth Virtual Environment and Learning Outreach Project) program utilizes infrared satellite imagery from its Terra satellite to spot areas of high soil moisture and heavy vegetation where ticks are most likely to be found. The study targeted Alabama’s Talladega National Forest and serves as a proof of concept for wider applications.
6. Helping Australian Ranchers Herd Cattle
NASA’s resources and technology benefit more than just Americans. For example, ranchers in the Australian Outback use data gathered by NASA to help them manage large cattle herds. The Landsat Earth-observing satellites and MODIS (MODerate Image resolution Spectroradiometer) aboard the agency’s Aqua and Terra satellites show ranchers, for example, where land is being overgrazed, and where pasture is growing back. Images are updated once every day or two and allow ranchers to make decisions on land management.
5. Fighting Forest Fires
NASA’s Ikhana drone aircraft took to the sky in 2007 for a two-year mission to provide firefighters real-time information about wildfires throughout the state of California. NASA originally designed the Ikhana as a test-bed for advanced sensors, but refitted it with an advanced thermal infrared scanner. This key asset allowed firefighters to spot hundreds of small fires in the early stages of development and respond quickly before they got out of hand. Today, the Ikhana has been updated and continues to fly various Earth science missions for NASA.
4. Helping American Farmers Increase Productivity
Most people would never associate NASA with farming. But the agency can help U.S. farmers plan the best use of land and crops. One example is northern Minnesota sugar beet farmer Gary Wagner, who uses Landsat imagery in visible and infrared to plan for fertilizer use. Stressed plants produce more sugar and uptake more fertilizer; looking at NASA imagery, Wagner can see where more fertilizer may be needed, and where it may be going to waste. Wagner can also look at historic data of fields he might want to purchase to see how fertile the soil has been from year to year. Before satellite imagery became available, he’d have to farm new land for several years to learn about its fertility.
3. Archaeology and Remote Sensing
NASA assets also help archaeologists on Earth look back in time. Earth-observing, remote-sensing technologies can peer under forest canopies, spying ruins, ancient roads and other signs of early human activity invisible at ground level. Satellite imagery recently helped researchers identify a hidden archaeological site less than two miles from the original Stonehenge complex. Satellites have also documented war crimes and the destruction of archaeological sites, such as recently occurred in war-torn Syria and Iraq.
2. Search and Rescue Missions
Several technologies developed by NASA in recent years have helped save thousands of lives in search and rescue missions, and the agency continues to be a pioneer in the field. The motto of the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking program (SARSAT) is to “take the search out of search and rescue.” NASA technology has played a key role in the effort, saving more than 28,000 lives worldwide in 30 years of operations. Over that time, the agency has helped develop the specs, formats, transmission protocols, and rules of use for Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) and other satellite-based search and rescue technologies.
1. Medical Technology and Research
Chances are good you’ve used a NASA technology for a health-related issue without realizing it. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory pioneered the development of imaging techniques such as the CAT scan and the MRI. NASA contributions have led to everything from infrared ear thermometers to improved artificial limbs. And research today continues in many fields. Research into human physiology aboard the International Space Station is providing key insight into “diseases of gravity” in a zero-g environment (think circulatory, spinal and back issues, osteoporosis and bone loss, etc.) Zero-g research may pave the way for the production of ultra-pure drugs on Earth. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are also making headway exploring the possible causes of Alzheimer’s.