NASA Science Launches Tree Study

September 28, 2012

Weeklong experiment using space shuttle technology detects stress and damage in trees.

Morton Arboretum tree researchers and NASA aeronautical engineers headed deep into the woods in September for a weeklong series of experiments and tests aimed at uncovering the mystery of tree biomechanics, or what makes trees stand and what makes them fall.
Armed with buckets of white and black paint and donning hiking boots and hard hats instead of white lab coats, they looked more like the design and camera crew from ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" as they began their mission. Phase One: Paint polka dots on trees. Phase Two: Rig up an elaborate digital imaging camera system spanning the top of the tree trunks on trees in the Arboretum's West Side research plot. Phase Three: Employ an extensive cable system to bend, twist and knock down trees, capturing the action on 3-D cameras.
This was serious scientific research, as scientists from the Arboretum and colleagues from France, England and Germany teamed up with NASA aeromechanical engineers for a week in the Arboretum's research plot to test whether technology used in space shuttle safety testing is a potentially useful research tool when applied to the biomechanics of trees.
"We're taking this vital technology used for the shuttle program into the field of trees," said Matt Melis, a longtime NASA engineer who leads NASA's Glenn Research Center Ballistics Impact Lab in Cleveland, Ohio, where engineers tested shuttle parts for their ability to withstand hits from debris.