Zigbee in Space: XBee RF Modules launched by NASA

By: Isabella Romero, Zigbee Marketing & Events Intern

July 7, 2015: A historic day for Zigbee technology and Digi International, NASA successfully launched XBee RF modules into space in a sounding rocket. The success of this experiment paves the way for the ability to breach foreign planets whose atmospheres are much thinner than Earth’s, while saving time, money, and resources.

Typically the sensor devices collecting atmospheric readings are connected with wiring, but an innovative team of engineers chose to move away from traditional strategies and experiment with a wireless network. The need for wireless technology became apparent as they developed their new parachute-like technology called an exo-brake. Exo-brakes are used to safely return samples from the Earth’s orbit as well as land spacecrafts on other planets with much thinner atmospheres than Earth.

ZigBee in SpaceThe XBee module provided a solution to a well-known problem: the need for effective long-range and low-energy devices without wires that would interfere with the need to deploy objects from the missile, and monitor their movements within the atmosphere. The low-power, reliable wireless network created by Zigbee standards allowed sensor data to be delivered reliably and consistently to an Ardiuno Mega, which processed the data and filtered the information to the long-range Iridium satellite uplink. The sensors collected a variety of data, including 3-axis acceleration, temperature, and air pressure. This information was used to ensure safe and effective monitoring of the rocket as it ascended and descended. The wireless technology provided several benefits to the team on the ground:

  • Real-time monitoring and feedback to control teams on the ground.
  • Allowed ground control to wirelessly control the aircraft, which includes slowing reentry of the payload, leading to an easier and safer recovery of the load for the ground team.
  • Fewer wires means a lighter load for the rocket, and less fuel needed to project it into the atmosphere.
  • Finally, it could capture data in previously difficult locations to measure data with wired sensors (nose cones and parachutes).

Once the wireless technology proved its usefulness, it was crucial that the product be low-cost. The team decided to develop the network with consumer-grade, off-the-shelf components; the model they tested for this experiment contained Digi’s XBee ZB modules, Arduino microcontrollers, and Sparkfun’s XBee adapter shields.

Though this was not the first experiment to test the effectiveness of wireless technology with space flight solutions, this was the first one to use Zigbee standards in a connected sensor network. And overall, the trial run was successful. The implication of this result means that wireless network professionals can work to build a more customized solution with Zigbee standards, providing a potential future for Zigbee standards and Digi International as the go-to technology for space applications.

The tremendous success of consumer-grade objects fitted for space-flight applications is a superb example of the kind of innovation made possible by Zigbee open, global, wireless standards. The seamless interoperability of Zigbee Certified products has opened opportunities for space exploration that may have not been possible otherwise. What other applications of Zigbee technology will improve our ability to explore our world? We can’t wait to find out!


Image courtesy of Digi.com