• A helicopter that flies on Mars shares tech DNA with a drone helping farmers monitor their land.
  • Recycled water systems could help provide drinking water in some of the driest places on Earth.
  • Cleaning up environmentally harmful contaminants has been made possible thanks to a NASA invention.

Space exploration can be both exciting and innovative. NASA has become a leading developer of technology as it has sought to make trips to space easier, safer and longer. And much of that technology is also being used here on Earth.

Here are five examples of technology that was initially developed as part of the space programme by NASA, now helping address some of the biggest environmental issues we face.

1. Forecasting global crop production with an algorithm

The agricultural sector is hungry for data that can help supply more accurate forecasts of crop productivity. For organizations involved in exporting farm produce, such data can be used to help drum up sales, set prices and generate international customers.

In the US, an algorithm created to detect clouds in satellite imagery is being used to provide that service commercially. It was initially designed to filter out clouds in satellite image data, as they compromise some of the calculations performed to monitor “forest and crop health, ice cap and glacier coverage, surface moisture, and a host of other surface conditions,” NASA says.

The system produces real-time image data covering 16 major global crops. The data includes maps of crop coverage, ground conditions, crop health, and global production forecasts. The data can also be broken down to give national and regional information and historical figures.

2. Tracking hurricanes with laser accuracy

From June to November, the US Atlantic coast is routinely battered by hurricanes. In Asia, cyclones can occur at any time of year – although they are more common from May to October. Spotting and tracking these devastating storms can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Mounted on a polar-orbiting satellite, a device called the Cross-Track Infrared Spectrometer uses a laser to scan the atmosphere, providing accurate data on temperature and humidity. That information helps meteorologists predict storm intensity and direction, meaning they can issue timely warnings to people likely to be in the path of a powerful storm.

In September 2017, it was used to track Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean and the southeastern US, enabling residents to make vital preparations.

3. Cleaning up an environmental hazard

Paint developed to withstand the ferocious heat generated during rocket launches was applied liberally to buildings and structures at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Particles called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) are non-flammable and can withstand very high temperatures. However, PCBs have also been found to cause physical and mental developmental harm to people and animals. The substance was banned in 1976, but it is still out there – in landfills, on buildings – affecting the environment.

PCBs are resistant to water, are very slow to break down and extremely difficult to clean up. Until NASA scientist Jackie Quinn hit upon the idea of using safe chemical reactions to pool PCBs and trap them.

The technology has been deployed in many hard-to-clean environments where PCBs have been detected, such as in marine ecosystems. Acting like a sponge, tubes fitted with the reactive agent soak up PCBs, removing them from the water without disturbing the rest of the area.

4. Giving farmers a bird’s eye view

On 19 April 2021, NASA flew a drone helicopter on Mars. Not just any drone, of course – one that had been designed to withstand a harsh and unforgiving landscape. Also, one that had been tested at very high Earth altitudes, where the air is so thin it resembles the Martian atmosphere.

Drone specialists AeroVironment had worked with NASA on drone development since the 1990s. In particular it has developed a series of drones that operate successfully at altitudes that match the density of the atmosphere on Mars. Its technology was used in the Ingenuity, the helicopter on Mars.

The anatomy of a Martian helicopter
The anatomy of a Martian helicopter
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Back on Earth, the very same technology is used in a field-scanning drone called Quantix. The drone makes its way to very high altitudes and tracks back and forth over a target area, delivering a series of high-quality composite images of the ground below. Coupled with accurate assessments of the land being surveyed, and GPS data, any problems can be investigated. In one case, it enabled a walnut farmer in central California to increase yield by over $50,000 in a single season.

5. In space, don’t ask whose water you’re drinking

Sending water into space is a very costly exercise. It weighs considerably more than rocket fuel. So where do astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) get their drinking water?

The short answer to that question is that they drink recycled urine, along with sweat and the moisture that enters the air from the astronauts' breath. Nothing is wasted. That might not sound too appealing, but the reality is that the drinking water on the ISS could actually be cleaner than the drinking water in most people’s homes, NASA reckons.

water, health, environment

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water security – both sustainable supply and clean quality – is a critical aspect in ensuring healthy communities. Yet, our world’s water resources are being compromised.

Today, 80% of our wastewater flows untreated back into the environment, while 780 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. By 2030, we may face a 40% global gap between water supply and demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Possible Platform is supporting innovative ideas to address the global water challenge.

The Forum supports innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships including the 2030 Water Resources Group, which helps close the gap between global water demand and supply by 2030 and has since helped facilitate $1Billion of investments into water.

Other emerging partnerships include the 50L Home Coalition, which aims to solve the urban water crisis, tackling both water security and climate change; and the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative, formed in response to close the 40% gap of the global population not having access to handwashing services during COVID-19.

Want to join our mission to address the global water challenge? Read more in our impact story.

Working with a Swedish university, NASA has helped create a shower that recycles its water supply using “positively charged microscopic alumina fibers (that) can remove virtually all contaminants, including bacteria and viruses”.

NASA says the new shower enables a faster flow rate of the recycled water than other systems. Being able to safely and effectively recycle water could help ensure people all over the world have access to water, even where it is scarce.