MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109 TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contact: Nancy Lovato, (818) 354-6278
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 6, 2000
ELECTRONIC NOSE: NOTHING TO SNIFF AT
NASA scientists are expanding the sensitivity of an
electronic nose, while shrinking its size to make it more compact
for future space missions following a Space Shuttle flight that
successfully demonstrated the technology.
"The E-Nose was able to determine changes in humidity
accurately, which we confirmed using an independent humidity
monitor in the shuttle cabin," said Dr. Amy Ryan, principal
investigator for E-Nose at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, Calif. "While we would have liked to monitor any of
the ten common contaminants the E-Nose was trained to smell,
fortunately for the crew none was detected. That was confirmed
with air samples brought back in canisters from the flight."
The ability to monitor recycled air is very important to the
space program, especially in closed environments such as the
Space Shuttle, the International Space Station and any future
space outpost that features a closed human habitat. Early
detection of potentially harmful spills or leaks is essential so
that crew members can immediately take action to remedy the
situation. Even if a human nose could detect every possible odor
and identify it, fatigue or a cold would impair the nose's
"Space crews are very, very busy," said Ryan. "Anything we
can do to automate their tasks and keep the space habitat safe is
highly desirable. Now we need to further develop E-Nose's
capability to detect various odors and differentiate between
those that signify danger and those that do not. We are working
with people at other NASA centers to optimize this technology."
Since there are limits on size and power requirements in
constricted quarters, miniaturization is important. The unit
flown on STS-95 is only about the size of a large paperback,
weighs 1.4 kilograms (about 3 pounds), including the operating
computer, and uses an average of 1.5 watts of power. Dimensions
are 18.5 by 11.5 by 12 centimeters (7-3/4 by 4-1/2 by 4-3/4
"Our current efforts are directed towards improving the
sensitivity of the E-Nose, expanding the compounds we can detect
from 12 to 24, and making the unit even smaller," Ryan said.
"Decreasing the size and weight will be pretty straightforward,
since the shuttle's space allocation requirements dictated the
special box we used for that flight."
A major application that JPL scientists are pursuing is the
detection of a fire before the blaze erupts. Fires can smolder
in closed areas, such as insulation in paneling or around wires,
for some time before flames actually appear. With early
detection, the fire can be extinguished safely before much damage
occurs. The many potential commercial uses include "sniffing"
for unexploded land mines; for spills in chemical plants that
could contaminate workers; for plant ripeness to harvest at the
desired point in the agricultural cycle; and for possible
diagnosis of disease based on odors from human perspiration and
The JPL E-Nose flown on the Space Shuttle used sensor
technology from the California Institute of Technology in
Pasadena. The project is managed for NASA's Office of Life and
Microgravity Sciences and Applications.
JPL is managed for NASA by Caltech.
An image of the electronic nose, with caption, is available