NASA sniffs out trouble with electronic nose

Astronauts living onboard the International Space Station next month will install what could be a life-saving gadget -- an electronic nose.

The Enose will be unpacked and installed on the space station on Dec. 9. Its job is to sniff out dangerous chemicals, like ammonia, mercury, methanol and formaldehyde that could escape into the air in the space station.

The Enose, which has an array of 32 sensors, will have a six-month test run, according to an alert issued last night by NASA. If the device works well, it will be used in future space missions, including manned missions to Mars or to the moon.

"This ENose is a very capable instrument that will increase crew awareness of the state of their air quality," said Carl Walz, a former astronaut and Director for NASA's Advanced Capabilities Division, which funds Enose development. "Having experienced an air-quality event during my Expedition 4 mission on the space station, I wish I had the information that this ENose will provide future crews. This technology demonstration will provide important information for environmental control and life-support system designers for the future lunar outpost."

NASA noted that there have been past air quality problems in the space station, the space shuttle and the Russian Space Station Mir. The problems largely went undetected until after crew members were exposed to the contaminants. The sensors, which will run autonomously, are designed to detect the leaks as they happen, allowing astronauts to quickly protect themselves.

NASA noted that the device's sensors are polymer films that change their electrical conductivity depending on what chemicals they come in contact with. The Enose, which is the size of a shoebox and uses about 20 watts of power, also is designed to collect data and stream it to be analyzed in computers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Enose that will be used in the space shuttle is a third-generation instrument. The first one had a six-day test onboard a space shuttle in 1998. The second one was tested on the ground.

This story, "NASA sniffs out trouble with electronic nose" was originally published by Computerworld.

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