Zone of Convergence Between Bio InfoNano Technologies nasas Nanotechnology Initiative

S. Venneri, M. Hirschbein, M. Dastoor, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA's mission encompasses space and Earth science, fundamental biological and physical research (BPR), human exploration and development of space (HEDS), and a responsibility for providing advanced technologies for aeronautics and space systems. In space science, agency missions are providing deeper insight into the evolution of the solar system and its relationship to Earth; structure and evolution of the universe at large; and both the origins and extent of life throughout the cosmos. In Earth science, a fundamental focus is to provide, through observations and models, the role of the physical, chemical, and biological processes in long-term climate change as well as push the prediction capability of short-term weather. In addition, NASA's challenge is to understand the biosphere and its evolution and future health in the face of change wrought by humankind.

The goal of NASA for BPR is to conduct research to enable safe and productive human habitation of space as well as to use the space environment as a laboratory to test the fundamental principals of biology, physics, and chemistry. For HEDS, a long-term presence in low Earth orbit is being accomplished with the space station. In the longer term, humans will venture beyond low earth orbit, probably first to explore Mars, following a path blazed by robotic systems.

A critical element of science missions and HEDS is safe and affordable access to space and dramatically reduced transit times for in-space transportation systems. In pursuance of this mission, NASA needs tools and technologies that must push the present state of the art. NASA spacecraft must function safely and reliably, on their own, far from Earth, in the extremely harsh space environment in terms of radiation and temperature variance coupled with the absence of gravity. This places demands on NASA technologies that are highly unique to the Agency. NASA's aeronautics goals are focused on developing technology to support new generations of aircraft that are safer, quieter, more fuel efficient, environmentally cleaner, and more economical than today's aircraft; as well as on technology to enable new approaches to air systems management that can greatly expand the capacity of our air space and make it even safer than it is today.

Virtually all of NASA's vision for the future of space exploration — and new generations of aircraft — is dependent upon mass, power requirements, and the size and intelligence of components that make up air and space vehicles, spacecraft, and rovers. Dramatic increases in the strength-to-weight ratio of structural materials offers the potential to reduce launch and flight costs to acceptable levels. Such structural materials can also lead to increases in payload and range for aircraft, which can translate into U.S. dominance of the world marketplace. Packing densities and power consumption are absolutely critical to realizing the sophisticated on-board computing capability required for such stressing applications as autonomous exploration of Europa for evidence of simple life forms or their precursors. The integration of sensing, computing, and wireless transmission will enable true health management of reusable launch vehicles and aircraft of the future.

To do this, NASA aircraft and space systems will have to be much more capable than they are today. They will have to have the characteristics of autonomy to "think for themselves": they will need self-reliance to identify, diagnose, and correct internal problems and failures; self-repair to overcome damage; adaptability to function and explore in new and unknown environments; and extreme efficiency to operate with very limited resources. These are typically characteristics of robust biological systems, and they will also be the characteristics of future aerospace systems. Acquisition of such intelligence, adaptability, and computing power go beyond the present capabilities of microelectronic devices.

The current state-of-the-art microelectronics is rapidly approaching its limit in terms of feature size (0.1 microns). Future enhancements will need novel alternatives to microelectronics fabrication and design as we know them today. Nanotechnology will afford a new class of electronics. In addition to possessing the benefits inherent in smaller feature size, nanotechnology will harness the full power of quantum effects that are operable only at nanoscale distances. Hence, not only should we expect a performance enhancement at the quantitative level, due to the higher packing density of nanoscale components, but also the emergence of qualitatively new functionalities associated with harnessing the full power of quantum effects. The hybridization of nanolithography and bioassembly could serve as the basis of an engineering revolution in the fabrication of complex systems.

We are already seeing the potential of nanotechnology through the extensive research into the production and use of carbon nanotubes, nano-phase materials, and molecular electronics. For example, on the basis of computer simulations and available experimental data, some specific forms of carbon nanotubes appear to possess extraordinary properties: Young's modulus over one Tera Pascal (five times that of steel) and tensile strength approaching 100 Giga Pascal (over 100 times the strength of steel). Recent NASA studies indicate that polymer composite materials made from carbon nanotubes could reduce the weight of launch vehicle — as well as aircraft — by half. Similarly, nanometer-scale carbon wires have 10,000 times better current carrying capacity than copper, which makes them particularly useful for performing functions in molecular electronic circuitry that are now performed by semiconductor devices in electronic circuits. Electronic devices constructed from molecules (nanometer-scale wires) will be hundreds of times smaller than their semiconductor-based counterparts.

However, the full potential of nanotechnology for the systems NASA needs is in its association with biology. Nanotechnology will enable us to take the notion of "small but powerful" to its extreme limits, but biology will provide many of the paradigms and processes for doing so. Biology has inherent characteristics that enable us to build the systems we need: selectivity and sensitivity at a scale of a few atoms; ability of single units to massively reproduce with near-zero error rates; capability of self-assembly into highly complex systems; ability to adapt form and function to changing conditions; ability to detect damage and self repair; and ability to communicate among themselves. Biologically inspired sensors will be sensitive to a single photon. Data storage based on DNA will be a trillion times more dense than current media, and supercomputers modeled after the brain will use as little as a billionth of the power of existing designs. Biological concepts and nanotechnology will enable us to create both the "brains and the body" of future systems with the characteristics that we require. Together, nanotechnology, biology, and information technology form a powerful and intimate scientific and technological triad.

Such technologies will enable us to send humans into space for extended durations with greater degrees of safety. While the vehicle they travel in will have much greater capability and display the same self-protective characteristics of spacecraft, nanotechnology will enable new types of human health monitoring systems and healthcare delivery systems. Nanoscale, bio-compatible sensors can be distributed throughout the body to provide detailed information of the health of astronauts at the cellular level. The sensors will have the ability to be queried by external monitoring systems or be self-stimulated to send a signal, most likely through a chemical messenger. NASA is currently working with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to conduct research along these specific lines.

Currently, NASA's program is split primarily between the Office of Aerospace Technology (OAT) with a focus on nanotechnology and the newly formed Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) with a focus on basic research in nanoscience related to biomedical applications. Furthermore, the OAT Program integrates nanotechnology development in three areas:

5. materials and structures xxxiii) nanoelectronics and computing xxxiv) sensors and spacecraft components

A summary of the content of these programs follows.

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