10 Everyday Innovations That Came From NASA Research

NASA’s Technology Transfer Program is “the agency’s oldest continually operated program,” according to Spinoff, its annual guide of consumer products developed from NASA technology. The agency has issued the guide since 1976 to emphasize just how much NASA research has gone into products and innovations that you see in everyday life. It's catalogued 2000 innovations and counting. Here are 10 technologies that owe their existence to space exploration.

1. CELL PHONE CAMERA, 1995

The world's most popular selfie tech is also NASA’s most ubiquitous spinoff technology. Cell phone cameras use a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor—not a new technology, but one revolutionized at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which made the sensor smaller, lighter, and able to produce a cleaner image. Coincidentally, the very notion of digital cameras was born at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s.

2. DUSTBUSTER, 1981

Its origins trace back to the Apollo program, when NASA contracted Black & Decker to design a special drill for taking core samples of the lunar surface. The computer program used to develop the low-powered, battery-operated moon motor was then used in the consumer space. A plethora of home cordless tools, and a tiny vacuum cleaner, were born.

3. MEMORY FOAM, 1966

The key ingredient in your comfy pillow was developed to absorb shock and improve the comfort of airplane seats. Today, the ubiquitous “slow spring back foam” improves just about everything, from football helmets and mattresses to race cars and saddles. Ironically, airplane seats remain uncomfortable.

4. EAR THERMOMETER, 1991

The thermometer sensors were first developed for satellites to check the temperatures of stars and other celestial objects by reading infrared radiation. The underlying technology was modified to measure the energy emitted from the human eardrum, making it much easier on everybody to see if the baby has a fever.

5. BABY FORMULA NUTRIENTS, 1985

When NASA needed to find a way for astronauts to eat on long-duration, deep space missions, it cultivated nutrient-enriched algae containing docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. The idea was for astronauts to grow their own food. Because these nutrients are also found in breast milk and delivered in utero to developing babies—DHA and ARA are key to visual and cognitive development—another, more terrestrial use was soon found. And while astronauts have yet to need it, babies have been eating it up.

6. ROADWAY SAFETY GROOVES, 1985

The goal was to help reduce hydroplaning on NASA runways. By carving slim grooves in the pavement, water would run off, allowing the Space Shuttle and other winged craft to land in the rain. The grooves came to the first commercial runway in 1967 (Dulles, in Washington D.C.) and eventually made their way to highway curves, saving countless terrestrial lives over the years. A test study of 14 before-and-after grooving sites in California found an 85 percent decrease in highway accidents during rainy weather [PDF].

7. INVISIBLE BRACES, 1989

These tooth straighteners owe their superpower to translucent polycrystalline alumina, which is a super-strong, super-invisible ceramic. It was first developed for heat seeking missile technology. NASA helped apply it to smile technology.

8. SCRATCH-RESISTANT LENSES, 1983

They're hard to scuff up thanks to NASA research into water purification. A thin, plastic film was developed and applied to a certain filter in the purification process, and would turn up again in NASA research into ways to protect space suit visors. In 1983, Foster Grant licensed the technology, and glasses have never been the same since.

9. WINGLETS, 1976

These are the vertical folds at the ends of aircraft wings. They save fuel for the same reason that you folded the wingtips of paper airplanes as a kid: They help the aircraft fly farther and faster. Winglets derive from NASA research into reducing fuel costs during the 1973 oil crisis—and have reduced those costs by billions in the decades since.

10. CARDIAC PUMPS, 1996

This technology helps keep heart patients alive while they wait for donor hearts. The idea grew out of a conversation between a NASA engineer and two heart surgeons. NASA used its experience simulating fluid flow through rocket engines to develop the technology for flowing blood through the human body.

All images: iStock

The FCC's New Scam Glossary Will Help You Identify Fraudulent Calls

Tero Vesalainen/iStock via Getty Images
Tero Vesalainen/iStock via Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) knows that robocalls have gotten worse in recent years, and it's finally doing something about it. In June 2019, the FCC voted to give phone carriers the freedom to block spam calls without waiting for customers to opt in. The change is a good first step, but it won't end the robocall scourge completely. For the unwanted calls that sneak past your phone's defenses, the FCC also published a scam glossary on its website, Popular Science reports.

The glossary lists some of the most common (as well as some uncommon) strategies used by criminals, giving you an idea of what to be on the lookout for next time you get a suspicious call. The "Health Insurance Scam," for example, involves callers selling fake health care coverage for a cheap price. There's also the "One Ring Scam," where the scammer will hang up quickly after the first ring without giving you time to answer the call. Their goal is to trick you into calling them back and paying for international call fees.

The glossary includes more general terms that relate to phone scams as well. Spoofing is defined as calls made through fake caller IDs that appear trustworthy, either by matching your home area code or that of a legitimate organization. Slamming happens when a phone company moves you from your existing service provider to theirs without your consent.

Familiarizing yourself with popular scams is one of the easiest ways to protect yourself from falling for fraudulent calls. Another way is to install robocall-blocking apps on your phone. Here are some options to check out.

[h/t Popular Science]

Fish Tube: How the 'Salmon Cannon' Works and Why It's Important

PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images
PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past week, you’ve certainly come across footage of wildlife conservationists stuffing salmon into a giant plastic tube and shuttling them over obstacles. It’s so bizarre—even by the already loose standards of the web—that it briefly ignited discussions over fish welfare, its purpose, and the seeming desire of people to be similarly transported through a pneumatic tunnel into a new life.

Naturally, the “salmon cannon” has a mission beyond amusing the internet. The system was created by Whooshh Innovations, a company that essentially adopted the same kind of transportation system featuring pressurized tubing that's used in banking. Initially, the system was intended to transport fruit over long distances without bruising. At some point, engineers figured they could do the same for fish.

The fish payload is secured at the entrance of the tube—acceptable species can weigh up to 34 pounds—and moves through a smooth, soft plastic tube that conforms to their body shape. Air pressure behind them keeps them moving. The fish are jettisoned between 16 and 26 feet per second to a new location, where they emerge relatively unscathed. Because there’s no need for a water column, the tubing can cover most terrain at virtually any height.

The tubing solution is a human answer to a human problem: dams. With fish largely confined to still bodies of water thanks to dams and facing obstacles swimming upstream to migrate and spawn, fish need some kind of assistance. In the past, “fish ladders” have helped fish move upstream by providing ascending steps they can flop on, but not all fish can navigate such terrain. Another system, trapping and hauling fish like cargo, results in disoriented fish who can even forget how to swim. The Whooshh system, which has been in used in Washington state for at least five years, allows for expedient fish export with an injury rate as little as 3 percent, although study results have varied.

The video features manual insertion of the fish. In the wild, Whooshh counts on fish making semi-voluntary entries into the tubing. Once they swim into an enclosure, they’re curious enough about the tube to go inside.

If all goes well, the system could help salmon be reintroduced to the Upper Columbia River in Washington, where the population has been depleted by dams. Testing of the device there is awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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