Vista Photonics seeks to make spaceflight more safe

Jason Gibbs, Las Cruces Sun-News
Published March 14, 2016

LAS CRUCES - Jeff Pilgrim has a nose for trouble.

And not just your average trouble: life-threatening, 270-miles-above-the-Earth trouble. Since founding Vista Photonics in 2003, Pilgrim and his company have researched, developed and hope to continue to provide systems that detect noxious gasses aboard the International Space Station to ensure the safety of astronauts in potentially deadly situations.


Pilgrim, who studied at the University of Georgia prior to post-doctoral work at Sandia Laboratories in Livermore, California, and working in Tucson, said his studies focus primarily on using lasers to detect the presence of harmful chemicals. That has now translated to several research and production projects in conjunction with NASA and, most recently, a $300,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop an inexpensive, high-performance, portable air pollution monitor to measure ammonia in the air.

"We've given companies the ability to take their ideas and technology from the laboratory to the market place," said Ron Curry, EPA regional administrator. "The innovative technology provides cutting-edge solutions to continuing environmental concerns, and helps create good-paying local jobs."

The contract is part of a national initiative where eight other companies are developing innovative technologies to protect the environment through EPA's Small Business Innovation Research Program. The phase II contracts announced today provide the companies $300,000 to further develop and commercialize their products and ideas. Phase II awards are only available to companies that previously submitted research proposals for their innovative technologies and were awarded phase I contracts up to $100,000.

EPA is one of 11 federal agencies that participate in the SBIR program, which was enacted in 1982 to strengthen the role of small businesses in federal research and development, create jobs and promote U.S. technical innovation. To be eligible to participate in the SBIR program, a company must be an organized, for-profit U.S. business and have fewer than 500 employees.Ammonia is a poisonous gas. Exposure to its vapors can cause temporary blindness and eye damage, and irritation of the skin, mouth, throat, respiratory tract and mucous membranes. Prolonged exposure to ammonia vapor at high concentrations can lead to serious lung damage and even death.

To prevent that end, Pilgrim is calling on his experience in using lasers to detect harmful gasses that, in event of accident or failed technology, would protect the lives of astronauts. His company, with an office near New Mexico State University's Arrowhead Center and research labs southeast of Las Cruces, has focused on detecting the presence of potentially deadly gasses on the ISS as well as working on a new system for monitoring carbon dioxide in spacesuits when astronauts have to work outside the station. The process, simply described by Pilgrim, is "you've got some really weird gas and you zap it with a laser, probe the reaction with another laser," he said.

After working in Santa Fe and Tucson, Pilgrim learned to write grant proposals and has since landed a few projects, including a contingency ammonia monitor of the ISS, for which they developed a prototype. The primary need for such a monitor is that when incoming or outgoing craft from Earth dock with the ISS, the docking location is in an area where, if there were ever a catastrophic coolant leak and ammonia gas in the station, the crew has to evacuate through an area where the ammonia is heaviest.

The devices will allow crew to monitor air quality over a period to ensure safety.

"They need to know if they are dragging ammonia in (an escape vehicle or another area of the ISS)," Pilgrim said. "Wherever they are going, they need an ammonia sensor."

One has been on ISS for two years and is still functioning well. There are, however, still hurdles to certify the sensors as "flight critical" which will entail strict monitoring of the entire supply and production chain as well as backups in place should units fail.

"We are now building a sensor just dedicated to ammonia," Pilgrim said. "If it performs the way we hope it will, if they (NASA) pick it up to take into the process for qualifying for flight, we will have several of these devices where the crew has to pass through to get to spacecraft when doing an abort.

"When they get into an escape spacecraft, they are trying to get the ammonia scrubbed out of the air," he added. "The project is going well. If we can prove the prototype in two to three months, then they will need a whole pile of them."

In addition, another NASA project seeks a carbon dioxide sensor for spacesuits, an effort underway since 2009. The existing monitors are old and beginning to wear, Pilgrim said, and need to be replaced for a new generation of space suits.

Another project has seen work on a laser-based sensor for measuring combustion products - the stuff floating in the air after something ignites or explodes. Due to the harsh environment in which the device operates, much of that testing was done at the White Sands Test Facility.

"It's an environment the sensor has to operate in that would kill a human in minutes," Pilgrim said. "It's not a very pleasant thing to be in."

Jason Gibbs may be reached at 575-541-5451 or Follow him on Twitter @fjgwriter.


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