The HP 200LX Powers an Electronic Nose in Space

The HP 200LX helps perform air quality monitoring aboard the space shuttle Discovery and aboard the International Space Station.

By Wayne Kneeskern

 Over the past couple of years I've read all the MUPs (Most Unusual Place) that Palmtop users have reported from (mountain tops, submarines, planes, etc). In the first article on MUPs there was the statement: "The Ultimate MUP does not exist!"

 I may not have discovered the "Ultimate" MUP but I may have found the Most "Universal" Place for a Palmtop. An HP 200LX circled the entire globe, 340 miles overhead, for six days.

On October 29, 1998 the space shuttle Discovery lifted off amidst a storm of controversy. On board the flight was Senator John Glenn who, at age 77, was the oldest person to journey into space. With all the media attention given to the "elder astronaut" you may have missed the news about the "elder Palmtop" that was on board.

The HP Palmtop Controls an Electronic Nose

 Along with the other payloads on board the Discovery Mission STS-95 was an Electronic Nose (E-Nose), a device developed jointly by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). This device, used to monitor changes in atmospheric conditions, was controlled by an HP 200LX Palmtop.

 The HP Palmtop sure doesn't look like a nose, but it is.

 Dan Karmon, Ph.D, from JPL, was kind enough to write up a short technical description of the E-Nose to use in The HP Palmtop Paper. As Project Manager, he also talks about the miniature Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer Array (QMSA) which they are developing. (See sidebar) Thaddeus Computing is working with the JPL to provide them with the circuit boards from the 200LX which they will be using to develop this portable tool (QMSA) that will be used by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). The first flight is slated for early 2001.

The E-Nose is a new, miniature environmental monitoring instrument that detects and identifies a wide range of organic and inorganic molecules down to the parts-per-million level. The objective on Discovery's mission STS-95 was to flight-test E-Nose and assess its ability to monitor changes in the Shuttle middeck atmosphere.

 In the close confines of a spacecraft, the air that crew members breathe is filtered and recycled throughout the mission. Since the air supply is limited and very difficult to replace, the buildup of atmospheric contaminants is a concern to crew health. Such contaminants have been found in the shuttle crew cabin air. The accumulation of these potentially harmful gases poses a more serious threat during long missions aboard a space station or enroute to distant bodies in the solar system.

 In addressing these concerns, spacecraft designers must also deal with the usual size and weight restrictions placed on all spacecraft components. The challenge of maintaining air quality must be met with small, lightweight efficient systems. Hence the development by Jet Propulsion Laboratory of a miniature air quality monitoring system, called the Electronic Nose, because it operates in a manner similar to the human olfactory sense in detecting air changes.

 The problems with current air quality monitoring equipment may be solved by the extremely compact and unobtrusive design of E-Nose. This comprehensive measurement of spacecraft air quality by a miniature, distributed device also has potential application for environmental monitoring and control on earth.

 The monitoring device used a sensor array to identify ten toxic compounds. In addition to the sensors the flight equipment included a valve assembly to control airflow to the sensor, a customized operator interface and the control "palmtop." An alcohol wipe kit was also provided as a daily marker for the experiment.

 During the 6-day experiment a crew member would collect ambient, cabin air samples in a grab-sample container for post flight independent analysis. In addition, the alcohol wipe was applied to the E-Nose daily to record a marker, and enter the event on a mission elapsed time log sheet. E-nose measurement baseline was reestablished every three hours. E-Nose data was stored internally for postflight analysis.

 According to Dr. Karmon the E-Nose experiment was successful.

To read more about the Discovery OV103, Flight STS-95 shuttle mission, point your Web browser at

"Off-the-Shelf" 200LX used by "Shade Tree Engineer"

The Electronic Nose and The Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer Array