Thursday, Sep. 03, 2009
It’s not every day you receive a special delivery and certainly not one from outer space. But Utah State University physicists are eagerly awaiting the arrival of an experiment they built that’s been flying on the International Space Station since March 2008.
NASA’s shuttle Discovery blasted into orbit from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center just one minute shy of midnight Aug. 28 and successfully docked with the ISS late Sunday. The space vehicle is expected to return to KSC Sept. 10.
On its return trip, Discovery will be carrying a USU experiment called ‘SUSpECS’ — short for “State of Utah Space Environment and Contamination Study,” crafted by USU’s Surface Physics Lab. Led by physics professor J.R. Dennison, student team members designed the experiment, which consists of four small panels carrying about 168 material samples.
“Each panel is about the size of a graham cracker and the samples about the size of a dime,” says Josh Hodges, a master’s student in physics. “We’re testing a variety of insulating materials, including plastics, carbon and fiberglass composites, gold, silver, copper, quartz and a combination of these.”
If all goes well, SUSpECS, a part of a larger NASA-funded study called MISSE — Materials International Space Station Experiment — will be in the Aggie scientists’ hands by the end of September.
Dennison, who watched the astronauts remove the panels on NASA TV during one of their spacewalks, expects them to be more than a little worse for wear. Two of the panels were attached to the ‘ram’ side of the space station, where they’ve been pummeled by toxic atomic oxygen and charged particles in solar wind. One rode on the ‘wake’ or rear side of the station, where it was exposed to ultraviolet light and the fourth, the control, traveled inside the station.
“The outside panels should be pretty chewed up,” says Dennison.
Once back at USU, he and his team will use a variety of tests and tools to inspect the travel-worn samples. Examination will yield valuable information about how various materials hold up in space — information NASA seeks as it develops the James Webb Telescope, the Solar Probe and vehicles and instruments planned for future lunar and Mars missions.
“Some of the damage to the samples might not be immediately evident,” Dennison says. “But small changes can have huge effects.”
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, firstname.lastname@example.org