NASA shuttle technology helps test tree strength

Sep 12, 2012 by Erin Meyer, Chicago Tribune

NASA's space shuttle program may be grounded, but technology used to explore the solar system is making history in ways that may surprise you.

Think baby formula. Think bras.

But first think trees. Aeronautic engineers and arborists gathered Monday morning in a rather alien-looking patch of woods at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., to figure out where trees are weakest and what makes them fall.

"This simply had never been done ever, period," 's Matt Melis said of the joint effort. "We are making history."

After stripping the bark from a handful of specimens infested by Emerald Ash borers, scientists painted the trunks white with black dots. One at a time, the scientists trained two high-tech, digital-imaging cameras on each, creating a perfect 3-D computer image of the tree before arborists pulled them down with cables attached to a winch.

By measuring the movement of each dot as pressure built on the tree, scientists could pinpoint areas of weakness - a great tool in helping experts determine risk assessment about how and where a tree might come down.

The experiment is just one of the most recent uses of NASA science - the agency holds 907 current patents - to spin off scientific applications and even a constellation of consumer products. These efforts include developing a nutrient contained in most baby formula, strengthening the durability of bras and in detection, to name a few.

NASA experiments also have been used to develop blue blocking sunglasses and cellphone cameras.

"Our primary goal is to create innovative approaches to technology transfer that benefit the American people," said Dan Lockney, who works for NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington, D.C.

Melis is a longtime NASA engineer who directs the 's Glenn Research Center Ballistics Impact Lab in Cleveland. Much of his career has been focused on making spaceflight safer, he said.

The tree experiments are based on tests designed to figure out what went wrong with the Columbia - a shuttle that exploded on its return to Earth in 2003, killing seven astronauts.

After decades of space exploration, NASA is charting a new course in the wake of major budget cuts and a decision last year by the Obama administration to quash plans to send a manned spacecraft to Mars. But its core mission remains, Lockney said.

"Partnerships with industry, academia, other government agencies and the public at large ... will be valuable tools NASA can use to meet the grand challenges the space exploration of tomorrow poses," he said.

Participating in this week's Arboretum experiment are scientists from France, England and Germany.

"We want to know how much trees can resist wind and weather," said Gary Watson, senior research scientist at the arboretum.

Because of the guesswork involved, Watson said arborists tend to "play it on the safe side," cutting down trees that pose even the slightest risk. He noted that the test trees had been overtaken by parasites and "were not long for this world."

The data being collected might not constitute a "giant step for mankind." But it does have the potential to change the world of tree care by preventing the needless destruction of trees that are not likely to come crashing down on a house, car or person, Watson said.

"Too many get taken down," he said. "Knowing when a tree is safe is the ultimate goal."

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