An Interview with Michael Johansen of NASA’s Swamp Works

Michel Johansen Swamps
Michael Johansen Standing at the entrance to Swamp Works’ Electrostatic and Surface Physics Laboratory

Astropreneurs: Could you tell us who you are and what you do at NASA?

Michael Johansen: My name is Michael Johansen, I’m a research engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and I work on future technologies that are needed to meet NASA’s exploration goals.

Astropreneurs: What kind of technologies does this entail?

Michael Johansen: I work in what’s called the Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory, which is one of many labs in NASA’s Swamp Works. Swamp Works was established just a few years ago to build a number of leading technologies to serve NASA’s exploration needs. I work primarily in dust mitigation technologies, but I’ve always worked on next-generation energy storage systems and lighting systems for astronauts. We’ve created a new lighting technology that changes throughout an astronaut’s work day to help facilitate a more natural sleep cycle. I’m also currently working on a payload that’s flying to the International Space Station in 2019. It will demonstrate one of our dust mitigation technologies designed to remove dust from solar panels and even astronauts’ space suits.

A different dust mitigation technology we are developing—called the electrostatic precipitator—may be used to remove dust from atmospheric carbon dioxide intakes. We want to convert the carbon dioxide atmosphere on Mars into useable oxygen for human needs; however, the presence of Martian dust makes even converted carbon dioxide a hazard, so this technology would filter the products until it is free of dust particles. This is just one of many ongoing projects at Swamp Works. Other groups are working on additive manufacturing, robotic mining, cutting-edge energy storage systems, and everything needed for deep-space exploration missions.

Electrostatic-Precipitator
The Electrostatic Precipitator – removing harmful dust from the atmosphere

Astropreneurs: It sounds like NASA has a lot of technological needs to fill in the near future. Does NASA create all of these technologies in house, or do groups like Swamp Works acquire additional assistance from the private sector?

Michael Johansen: It’s a little bit of both. The government’s role in tech development is to investigate potential technologies that may not be profitable in the short term, yet are necessary for a mission’s success. In fact, we develop some ideas that may not see a return profit for up to twenty years; whereas private companies typically need to develop technologies that will see a more immediate profit in order for the company to remain financially stable. Typically, NASA will outsource its development needs to a private company if the end product would be practical and profitable in the commercial market.
Here’s an example: Swamp Works is building chemical plants to transform Martian carbon dioxide into breathable air for humans. A private company could very well create this technology; however, there simply won’t be a market for this particular tool until humans are actually present on Mars, which will be several years down the line. Consequently, it makes more sense for NASA to develop this capability in-house. Basically, we ascertain what NASA’s needs are for its missions, and then whatever components may be handed off to private industry, are. Otherwise, NASA creates it.

The Mars simulator
The Mars Simulator – capable of simulating the atmospheric pressure, composition, and temperature of the Martian surface

Astropreneurs: How much of what NASA creates at labs like Swamp Works eventually ends up being used for every-day terrestrial purposes?

Michael Johansen: Every time we create something new, we submit something called a New Technology Report to the folks at NASA’s Technology Transfer Office. They assess the technology and figure out how it could be used to benefit people on Earth. If the technology is useful, it is published in NASA’s yearly Spinoff catalog and made available to the public for licensing via NASA’s Technology Transfer Program.

Graphene Supercapacitor
A graphene supercapacitor – a cutting edge energy storage system useful for future space missions

Astropreneurs: So, you’re telling me that the technology you create specifically for NASA missions eventually ends up being used by the public/the private sector to make life better on Earth?

Michael Johansen: Yes! For example, our electrodynamic dust shield technology is applicable for lunar and Martian surfaces to help keep sunlight blocking dust from mission-essential solar panels. This same technology may be used to protect solar panels right here on Earth. Dust is a major problem for keeping a solar panel cool and maintaining its overall efficiency. By using our technology, large solar farms could potentially increase the amount of energy they are able to absorb from sunlight. Additionally, some of developments Swamp Works is making with additive manufacturing technology has a plethora of possible uses on Earth.

Astropreneurs: Additive manufacturing? Could you tell me more?

So, one of Swamp Works’ projects is creating machines that use lasers to melt dust particles into useable building materials for lunar/Martian habitats and tools. This would enable the construction of mission-essential facilities without having to bring additional building supplies to space. Instead, these additive manufacturing systems would use the regolith present on the celestial surface to essentially 3-D print useable structures. This technology also has many potential uses on Earth for humanitarian needs and disaster relief. Imagine being able to build storm shelters, temporary homes, or even hospitals using only the dirt you’re standing on.

Michael-Johansen
Michael Johansen standing next to the dust mitigation system

Thank you, Michael, for sharing a little bit about what you and the rest of Swamp Works are doing to help push humanity forward both on Earth and in space exploration. We at Astropreneurs.space are excited about what the future holds!

Posted by Marshall Mckellar