NASA’s Silicon Valley

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Mission: Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley enables exploration through selected development, innovative technologies and interdisciplinary scientific discovery. Ames provides leadership in astrobiology; small satellites; robotic lunar exploration; technologies for the Constellation program; the search for habitable planets; supercomputing; intelligent/adaptive systems; advanced thermal protection; and airborne astronomy. Ames develops tools for a safer, more efficient national airspace and unique partnerships benefiting NASA’s mission.

Parent Organization: NASA

Top Official: Simon “Pete” Worden

Year Established: 1939

Location: Mountain View, Calif.

Annual Budget: $824 million

Personnel: 3,170 employees (1,256 NASA, 1,914 contractor)

 

SAN FRANCISCO — The NASA Ames Research Center is not equipped to build massive spacecraft or lead flagship missions to distant planets, but it can play a significant role in the space agency’s future through innovations in information technology, space biology, small satellites and aeronautics.

With only 3,170 employees, Ames is one of NASA’s smaller centers. That fact, which some might view as a disadvantage, is actually an advantage, according to Ames Director Simon “Pete” Worden. “To do cool things, we have to focus on some of the smaller things, but we also have to partner with folks,” he said.

Partnerships abound at Ames. Nearly every Ames initiative involves private companies, universities and other government agencies. The center’s 2010 budget includes $700 million in NASA funding plus approximately $124 million earned through work for government and industrial partners, including the U.S. Defense Department, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Google Inc., Cisco Systems and Microsoft Corp., according to Ron Liang, Ames’ deputy chief financial officer.

Founded in 1939 as an aircraft research laboratory for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Ames continues to test military aircraft in its transonic and supersonic wind tunnels and to assist the FAA in developing future air traffic control systems. “If your flight is late today, it’s not our fault, but it will be in 20 years,” Worden said.

Ames also features one of the world’s fastest supercomputers and leads many of NASA’s information technology initiatives. For example, the center is leading the space agency’s move to cloud computing, which offers access to a shared pool of computer networks, servers and application.

That computing expertise is the basis for many of Ames’ industrial collaborations, which are designed to make NASA’s enormous data stockpile available to the public in easily accessible formats. Ames is working with Google, which is also based here, to provide space agency data through the Google Moon and Google Mars photographic maps. The center has joined forces with Microsoft of Redmond, Wash., to provide high-resolution imagery of the Moon and Mars through Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope, a free Internet portal. Ames also is assisting San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco in developing Planetary Skin, a global sensor network designed to help world and community leaders understand and respond to climate change.

According to Worden, those partnerships demonstrate the entrepreneurial spirit of Ames. “I think of Ames as the Silicon Valley of NASA,” said the retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, astronomy professor and veteran of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, who took the helm at Ames in 2006. “We are the window on Silicon Valley. We bring that sort of character of innovation to the agency.”

In recent years, Ames has gained a reputation for its ability to conduct low-cost, fast-paced research programs, Worden said. Last year, the center’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission smashed into the Moon, producing evidence of water and hydrocarbons. Robotic investigation of the Moon will continue as Ames works with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to oversee the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, a mission scheduled for launch in 2013.

In the meantime, Ames is continuing to develop small satellite technologies and prepare space biology experiments as it did with PharmaSat in 2009 and GeneSat in 2006. In September, Ames plans to fly two distinct experiments in one 5.5 kilogram satellite as part of the Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stressors mission. One experiment will allow researchers to see how microorganisms adapt in space. Another will monitor organic molecules exposed to radiation, said John Hines, Ames’ acting chief technologist.

Ames also is playing a leading role in two NASA initiatives scheduled to begin in 2011, the Franklin Small Satellite Subsystem Technology program and the Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Missions program. The two efforts, which were created by the space agency’s Office of the Chief Technologist, are designed to propel development of spacecraft components and to validate those technologies in flight, Hines said.

In space exploration, Ames has been designated the lead center for NASA’s small robotic precursor program known as xScout, which will consist of $100 million to $200 million competitively selected missions designed to pave the way for human space travel. In addition to overseeing the program, Ames plans to form teams to compete for the xScout contracts, Worden said.

In the field of astrophysics, Ames is leading mission operations and science data analysis for the Kepler space telescope as it scans a swath of the Milky Way Galaxy in search of Earth-like planets. “We are on the verge of finding Earth-sized planets in Earth-type orbits,” Worden said, adding that the data yet to be released are “spectacular.”

This multifaceted center is also the home of NASA’s Astrobiology and Lunar Science Institutes, two virtual organizations that award funding to university teams across the country in support of space-related research, as well as science and mission operations for the U.S.-German Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Ames, which is located on Moffett Field, a former U.S. Navy air station, leases property to universities, companies and nonprofit organizations in its NASA Research Park. “I’ve got 1,800 acres of Silicon Valley real estate,” Worden said. That real estate is being filled by dozens of tenants, including the University of California, Carnegie Mellon University, Google and Bloom Energy of Sunnyvale, Calif., a manufacturer of fuel cells.