Using NASA technology to help test tree strength

Chicago TribuneOctober 21, 2012 

NASA’s space shuttle program may be grounded, but technology used to explore the solar system is making history in ways that may surprise you.

Think baby formula. Think bras.

But first think trees. Aeronautical engineers and arborists gathered on an early September morning in a rather alien-looking patch of woods at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., to figure out where trees are weakest and what makes them fall.

“This simply had never been done ever, period,” NASA’s Matt Melis said of the joint effort. “We are making history.”

After stripping the bark from a handful of specimens infested by emerald ash borers, scientists painted the trunks white with black dots. One at a time, the scientists trained two high-tech, digital-imaging cameras on each, creating a perfect 3-D computer image of the tree before arborists pulled them down with cables attached to a winch.

By measuring the movement of each dot as pressure built on the tree, scientists could pinpoint areas of weakness – a great tool in helping experts determine risk assessment about how and where a tree might come down.

The experiment is just one of the most recent uses of NASA science – the agency holds 907 current patents – to spin off scientific applications and a constellation of consumer products. These efforts include developing a nutrient contained in most baby formula, strengthening the durability of bras, and in crime scene detection, to name a few.

NASA experiments also have been used to develop blue-blocking sunglasses and cellphone cameras.

“Our primary goal is to create innovative approaches to technology transfer that benefit the American people,” said Dan Lockney, who works for NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington.

Melis is a longtime NASA engineer who directs the space agency’s Glenn Research Center Ballistics Impact Lab in Cleveland. Much of his career has been focused on making spaceflight safer, he said.

The tree experiments are based on tests that were designed to figure out what had gone wrong with Columbia, the shuttle that burned up in the atmosphere during its return to Earth in 2003, killing seven astronauts.

After decades of space exploration, NASA is charting a new course in the wake of major budget cuts and a decision last year by the Obama administration to quash plans to send a manned spacecraft to Mars. But its core mission remains, Lockney said.

“Partnerships with industry, academia, other government agencies and the public at large … will be valuable tools NASA can use to meet the grand challenges the space exploration of tomorrow poses,” he said.

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