News

USU experiment taking flight with NASA

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
March 9, 2008

When space shuttle Endeavor launches on the next NASA expedition to the International Space Station — recently scheduled for next Tuesday — it will be carrying experiments assembled by Utah State University that should help many future space projects.

The Logan university has put together an experiment called SUSpECS, for "State of Utah Space Environment and Contamination Study," which will check for ways that the space environment will affect various materials that may be used in space.

J.R. Dennison, physics professor who has been working with graduate students on SUSpECS, said the experiment is a set of four panels about two by six inches. "On those panels we have, I think it's 168 samples," he said. The panels fit into a larger experiment called MISSE, or Materials International Space Station Experiment.

MISSE, run by NASA and the Air Force, packs several experiments in two large suitcase-type containers. "They have a whole raft of these samples" in the packages, Dennison said. Samples were put together at several locations around the country, shipped to NASA facilities in Norfolk, Va., and put together for their shuttle trip.

At the space station, "The astronauts will then take the 'suitcases,' haul them out into space, and open them up," he said. The instrument trays inside expose the experiments to the hostile vacuum. Eventually, the cases will be returned to Earth, and the materials tested to see how they fared.

Scientists will examine samples "to understand how the materials will charge up when they're exposed to charged particles in the solar wind and ultraviolet light from the sun."

Different scientific organizations have given samples for particular purposes.

"The materials that we're using are actually from about five or six different groups," Dennison said. Those from his own group, amounting to half or two-thirds of the samples that USU has gathered, "are common materials used for spacecraft, satellites, on the International Space Station, for lunar rovers, and so on.

"And we also have sets of samples for specific projects that we're working on." Among these are materials that could be used on the James Webb Space Telescope, which someday will replace the Hubble Space Telescope.

USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory contributed a temperature control.

One space expedition that will benefit from the testing will be a probe designed to loop in close to the sun, within about one-fifth or one-sixth the distance that Mercury orbits from the local star. To be tested in the SUSpECS array "are materials for the heat shield."

Dennison and graduate student Joshua Hodges were planning to travel to Kennedy Space Center, Fla., to watch the launch. Dennison credited Hodges with doing most of the work of designing and building the experiment. "The whole project has been largely student-driven," he said.

"We're pretty excited," Dennison added. "I've never seen the shuttle nor has Josh."

The samples will return to earth in about a year, ready for analysis.

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