NASA testing RFID chips for trip to Mars

Can RFID technology survive in outer space?

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) this summer plans to begin testing whether RFID technology can survive in outer space.

Agency officials said the test is the first step of an effort to determine whether the technology can be used in any future manned mission to Mars.

Fred Schramm, administrator for the internal research and development program at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said a variety of paper and plastic RFID tags will be on board the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour, which is slated to launch in July on a voyage to the International Space Station.

The Gen 2 passive RFID chips will be stored in a case attached to the outside of the station and left there for about a year to determine how they are affected by atmospheric conditions, he said. In the test, the chips will be exposed to extreme heat and cold, ultraviolet radiation and the vacuum conditions that exist in low orbit, Schramm said.

After the test, NASA will determine whether the weight of RFID chips used in the experiment could cause problems in a space mission, whether the atmospheric conditions will degrade tags so they can't be used, and what materials, such as silicon or copper, work best in space, he said.

If those tests are successful, Schramm said, the technology will be further evaluated on a pre-Moon-launch rocket test that is slated to launch in about 27 months. "Most things that will work with the moon will work with Mars, and we're working with the moon in mind," he noted.

Schramm said the agency hopes that RFID technology can be used to monitor and manage inventory on a spacecraft, and to track internal and external environmental conditions both on the mission to the moon and future manned flights to Mars.

"If you think of the moon, that's not very far-- it's only a few days away, but Mars is 34 million miles away," Schramm said.

"If you think of going to Mars, you carry a lot of stuff with you," said Schramm. He also noted that astronauts cannot immediately input data into systems when working outside a spacecraft on a mission, which could lead to mistakes. RFID technology could solve that problem, he noted.

"If they're inside," he added, "we'd rather have them doing other things. We want automatic inventory registration," he said. For instance, if a food package is passed from one cabin to another for an astronaut to eat, the RFID-enabled system would register that the package is no longer available.

If the technology is found to work under such conditions, Schramm said, RFID tags could also be placed on any part of a spacecraft and on anything inside it, allowing data to be transported directly to a local network within the spacecraft or signaled directly back to Earth, he said.

As in a warehouse on land, RFID readers would be positioned in key locations within and outside the spacecraft to collect data, he said. The technology could also be used to manage the complex vehicles and systems used in space exploration, he noted.

Such applications are only viable if the technology can withstand the atmospheric conditions in outer space, Schramm said.

The RFID chips used in the test will be developed by NASA partner Intermec Inc., an Everett, Wash.-based manufacturer of RFID and supply chain systems.

An Intermec spokesman said the company is confident that plastic RFID technology will work in outer space conditions. He also noted that commercial applications could result from the use of the technology in such conditions.

Aerospace and defense agencies and corporations have been using RFID technology in recent years for supply chain inventory management, said Michael Liard, an analyst at technology consultancy ABI Research in New York. However, he noted, this is the first time he had ever heard of testing RFID in space.

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