Nanotechnology Activities at NASA

Dr. Darrell L. Jan
NASA Headquarters

NASA is very excited about the potential for nanotechnologies to provide enhancement or enablement to the NASA mission. There are several areas in which nanotechnology can assist. One obvious area is that of miniaturization of spacecraft systems, such as instrumentation, propulsion, or life support. Reduction in size and mass can yield significant savings in launch costs. NASA has already made significant progress in this area by exploiting advances in microelectronics and MEMS. An example is the Mars Pathfinder mission, with its Sojourner rover, which landed on Mars July 4, 1997. Nanotechnology may enable further advances in miniaturization without loss of measurement accuracy. Miniaturization will also enable more efficient tools and devices for astronaut usage, such as comfortable headmounted information displays, noninvasive physiological monitoring, and wireless communication. Furthermore, the improved material properties enabled by nanostructuring should prove useful to NASA. Applications will be in lightweight structures, hydrogen storage, and chemical processing. In all these applications, a mixture of micro-, nano-, macro-, and meso-scale technologies may be necessary, and the issues related to interfacing and optimizing these mixes need attention.

Information on NASA funding opportunities in these and other areas may be found at and

NASA is funding some theoretical modeling of nanostructures, taking advantage of the considerable computational power available at NASA facilities. NASA Ames has a computational nanotechnology effort in progress addressing physics- and chemistry-related issues in nanofabrication. The motivation for the effort arises from the potential of ultrasmall semiconductor devices (with feature size below 0.1 micron) and carbon nanotube-based electronics for petaflop computing hardware. The device effort focuses on computational quantum device modeling of ultrasmall devices and optical interconnects. Also, the possibility of making switches and three-terminal transistors using carbon nanotubes is being investigated using abinitio quantum chemistry and physics models.

Carbon nanotube-based technology is investigated for producing nanogears and other mechanical systems and as an efficient storage mechanism for hydrogen. The latter application is particularly critical to NASA mission needs since storage and transport of hydrogen is a costly component of many space missions.

Further information may be found at

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Published: January 1998; WTEC Hyper-Librarian