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Innovation

Will RFID tags work on Mars?

According to Computerworld, NASA will start to test this summer if RFID technology can survive in outer space. A variety of RFID tags will be on the space shuttle Endeavour in July during a trip to the International Space Station. Then they'll be installed inside containers attached to the exterior of the ISS and stay there for a year before a return to Earth for analysis. If these initial tests are successful, NASA will check at the end of 2009 if RFID tags will work on the Moon. But the real goal is to ease the daily lives of the astronauts who will travel to Mars.
Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

According to Computerworld, NASA will start to test this summer if RFID technology can survive in outer space. A variety of RFID tags will be on the space shuttle Endeavour in July during a trip to the International Space Station. Then they'll be installed inside containers attached to the exterior of the ISS and stay there for a year before a return to Earth for analysis. If these initial tests are successful, NASA will check at the end of 2009 if RFID tags will work on the Moon. But the real goal is to ease the daily lives of the astronauts who will travel to Mars.

Fred Schramm, administrator of the Internal Research and Development Program at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, said to Computerworld that "most things that will work with the moon will work with Mars, and we’re working with the moon in mind."

Below you can see how "the RFID tags and other direct part marking (DPM) materials will be mounted to a Passive Experiment Container (PEC), a suitcase-sized payload attached to the exterior of the International Space Station." (Credit: RFID Journal)

RFID tags that will be attached to the ISS

Here are two more short quotes from the Computerworld article.

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 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.

Now, let's switch to a RFID Journal article about this project, "NASA, Intermec Partner to Send RFID Into Space," which provides additional details about these tests.

The goal of the experiments is to see how RFID tags and other identification technologies fare when exposed for an extended length of time to the environmental conditions of space. During a shuttle mission to the space station planned for July, NASA astronauts will mount aluminum briefcase-sized containers to the exterior of the spacecraft. The materials being tested will be inserted in coin-sized slots on the container for exposure to the conditions 350 kilometers above Earth. After several months in space, the materials will be retrieved and returned to Earth, where they will be analyzed and tested to gauge the impact of such things as atomic oxygen (individual oxygen atoms), ultraviolet radiation and micrometeorites.

As you can infer from the above paragraph, NASA is working with Intermec Inc. on this project. And Intermec published its own news release about the project, "Intermec Partners with NASA to Research New Automated Part Tracking Technologies for Space-Borne Vehicles" (January 31, 2007).

Computerworld adds that "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."

And RFID Journal notes that other applications might be possible.

In the long term, NASA and Intermec see broader commercial -- and earthbound -- applications for the auto-ID technologies the experiments will advance. In particular, Schramm envisions the potential use of such technologies in anticounterfeiting efforts across a range of industries and with a variety of goods, from aerospace parts to construction materials to cultured pearls.

But before this, let's see if NASA's mission is successful: we should know it during the summer of 2008.

Sources: Marc L. Songini, Computerworld, February 9, 2007; Jill Gambon, RFID Journal, February 2, 2007; and various other websites

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