NASA Reveals the Unknown in 2016

With an eye to considering revolutionary solutions to tomorrow's challenges, NASA selected five green technology concepts for study that include research in alternative fuel cells, using 3-D printing to increase electric motor output, the use of lithium-air batteries for energy storage, new mechanisms for changing the shape of an aircraft wing in flight, and the use of a lightweight material called aerogel in the design and development of aircraft antenna.


This year, new Earth science missions got underway to enable studies that will unravel the complexities of our planet from the highest reaches of Earth's atmosphere to its core. NASA joined with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and European partners in January to launch an oceanography satellite mission that will continue a nearly quarter-century record of tracking global sea level rise. Data from the Jason-3 mission will improve weather, climate and ocean forecasts, including helping NOAA's National Weather Service and other global weather and environmental forecast agencies more accurately forecast the strength of tropical cyclones.

In November, NASA successfully launched for NOAA the first in a new series of highly advanced geostationary weather satellites called Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R. GOES-R will boost the nation's weather observation capabilities, leading to more accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings. NASA also is pushing the envelope on a new technology to advance our understanding of hurricanes worldwide. The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission launched Dec. 15. It's a unique small satellite constellation that will help improve hurricane intensity, track, and storm surge forecasts.

In 2017, NASA will launch two Earth-observing instruments to the International Space Station as part of the agency's ongoing use of the orbiting space laboratory to study our changing planet. The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) from NASA's Langley Research Center will give NASA a new way to monitor Earth's protective ozone layer and document its ongoing recovery. The Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) from Marshall Space Flight Center will measure both in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning over much of the planet, data that will help improve our understanding of lightning's connections to weather and related phenomena. Both instruments will continue important long-term data records of how our planet works.

NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) twin satellites, launched in 2002, have since provided the first tool capable of quantifying land liquid water storage trends. New measurements announced in February from the mission allowed researchers for the first time to determine how much water is being stored on land that would otherwise have added to sea level rise as the result of climate change.

NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development expanded the SERVIR network of environmental monitoring centers they support this year in developing countries to West Africa. 


NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate selected three companies for in-space robotic manufacturing and assembly projects. The projects will mature systems concepts and technologies that could revolutionize the way we design and deploy spacecraft and large space structures in low-Earth orbit and beyond, such as additive manufacturing, robotics, and autonomy to enable manufacturing and assembling spacecraft structural systems in-orbit.

NASA's  Solar Electric Propulsion project is developing critical technologies to enable safer and more cost-effective space travel to destinations, such as Mars and asteroids. In April 2016, a commercial vendor, Aerojet Rocketdyne, was selected for a three-year contract to develop major components for a flight propulsion system, including delivering four units to be employed in an upcoming flight demonstration mission.

In July, NASA's Game Changing Development program successfully launched a self-contained, wax-based heat exchanger to the International Space Station. This new exchanger could help offset heat and better regulate temperatures experienced by spacecraft, such as Orion. The goal is to provide in-space performance data on this flight-proven phase change material heat exchanger in order to be considered for use on NASA's Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed mission on Orion and the Space Launch System rocket.

NASA's Technology Transfer program continued in 2016 to share the agency's technology with industry, academia and other government agencies at an unprecedented rate, making it simpler and faster for users to access the benefits of NASA's investments in aerospace research. NASA's patent gift initiative in May released dozens of formerly-patented agency technologies into the public domain, making its government-developed technologies freely available for unrestricted commercial use. And a searchable database now is online that catalogues thousands of formerly patented NASA technologies freely available for anyone to use.

Public Engagement

By engaging in public events, including South by Southwest; the USA Science and Engineering Festival; Essence Festival; Chicago Air and Water Show; Star Trek 50th Anniversary: Mission New York; and nationwide Earth Day activities, more than two million people this year had the chance to interact with representatives of America's space agency. More than 400 million people were reached through NASA's use of social media during these events.

NASA's globally popular website,, was honored again in 2016 with the People's Voice award for best government website at the Webby Awards. The popular vote was the eighth People's Voice award for the site, and after 2015's redesign, it was the fourth different design for which NASA has won. Traffic to the site continued to increase steadily, rising 20 percent over 2015 numbers to just more than 300,000 visits per day. The site also continues to receive customer satisfaction ratings that put it near the top of all government websites.

NASA's social media presence continued to grow in 2016. The agency's flagship Twitter account now has more than 20 million followers, the most in the federal government and top 100 overall on the platform. NASA also has the most followers in government on Facebook with about 18 million likes. In addition to NASA TV, the agency also broadcasted its first rocket launch on Facebook Live, reaching more than 800,000 people. While in orbit aboard the International Space Station, #YearInSpace astronaut Scott Kelly hosted NASA's first Tweetchat, Reddit AMA, Tumblr Answer Time, and Facebook Q&A from space. After his return, he hosted a Facebook Live and the agency kicked off its official presence on Snapchat. This month, NASA officially launched Pinterest and GIPHY accounts. The agency also hosted 15 NASA Socials, bringing together more than 1,000 followers who engage with NASA via social media for unique in-person experiences of exploration and discovery.

Citizen Science, Prizes and Challenges

In 2016, NASA launched 28 challenges with almost 122,000 participants, received over 5,000 submissions, and provided a total of $1.2 million in cash awards. Eight NASA citizen scientists also were recognized as co-authors on a peer-reviewed paper. The agency launched a new GLOBE Observer app for citizen scientists to track changes in their local environment, and a way for the public to participate in the exploration of our solar system's largest planet, Jupiter. 

NASA's partnership with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers ran two successful Future Engineers 3-D printed design competitions for students, the Star Trek Replicator and the Think Outside the Box challenges. This summer, the winner of the 2014 Space Tool Design Future Engineers challenge saw his multipurpose tool design printed onboard the space station. NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) successfully conducted seven NASA Tournament Lab challenges and finally saw the crowd-developed ISS Food Intake Tracker successfully deployed on the space station iPads for use by astronauts.

NASA's  Centennial Challenges program launched two new competitions: the Vascular Tissue challenge uses regenerative medicine to help humans survive long-term space travel, and the Space Robotics challenge is working to build robots that could help humans during the journey to Mars. NASA also awarded $750,000 to West Virginia University for winning the Sample Robot Return challenge, and the Cube Quest challenge awarded a total of $300,000 to the highest-scoring teams in two ground tournaments.

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