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Aggie Physicists Retrieve Package From Space

Utah State University physicists are celebrating the arrival of a small package brimming with vast research potential.


At the end of October, students Amberly Evans and Josh Hodges traveled to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to retrieve a USU experiment that flew on the International Space Station for nearly a year and a half.


Space shuttle Endeavour carried ‘SUSpECS’— short for “State of Utah Space Environment and Contamination Study” — to the station in March 2008, and shuttle Discovery returned the experiment to Earth following its September 2009 mission. SUSpECS, which contains about 168 material samples, is part of a larger NASA study called Materials International Space Station Experiment or “MISSE” aimed at finding materials suitable for crafting future space vehicles and instruments.


“Each of the experiment's samples represents a potential study — including doctoral dissertations, masters' theses, undergraduate projects,” says Professor J.R. Dennison, a faculty mentor of the USU student team that built the experiment. “This project is a unique and significant opportunity for USU.”


Past space program adversities and current circumstances intensify the value of each precious sample. Following 2003's Columbia disaster, NASA reined in its programs and temporarily suspended the shuttle program. NASA's Get–Away Special program, which included sending student–built experiments to space and in which USU was a major participant, was also terminated.


“Previous experiments on the impact of the space environment on materials, including one led by former astronaut and USU professor Don Lind, were lost or discontinued,” Dennison says. “And as NASA's shuttle program draws to a close and the future of the Ares and other rocket programs hang in the balance, current opportunities to send experiments into space are dwindling.”


USU's experiment — packed inside a plastic, vacuum–sealed food storage container purchased at a local supermarket for $7.95 — holds a variety of materials, including plastics, carbon and fiberglass composites, gold, silver, copper, quartz and a combination of these. The samples, each about the size of a dime, are embedded in four graham cracker–sized metal panels.


“Two of the panels were attached to the ‘ram’ side of the outside of the space station, where they were pummeled with corrosive atomic oxygen and charged particles in solar wind,” says Hodges, who earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from USU in 2006 and is currently working toward a master's degree in physics. “The other two panels rode on the ‘wake’ or rear side of the station, where they were exposed to ultraviolet light.”


As expected, the ram–side materials look “pretty chewed up,” Dennison says, but the experiment has already yielded some surprises.


“Oddly enough, some of the charged samples are not as beat up as we expected,” he says. “But Amberly (Evans) will help us figure this out.”


About half of the samples will remain at USU for evaluation and half will be sent to USU's collaborators for investigation. Evans, an undergraduate majoring in physics and chemistry, will perform optical measurements on each of USU's samples. Each sample will also be subjected to extensive tests examining their thermal properties, electron emission properties and resistivity. High resolution photography will be used to examine each sample for defects.


“One of the samples has a highly visible damage signature from a micrometeroid impact it sustained while on the station,” Dennison says.


Through the experiment, Dennison's team and its collaborators, including USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory and Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, ATK Launch Systems, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and several groups at NASA, will learn how varied materials hold up in space. The information will assist NASA as it develops future missions, including the James Webb Telescope — successor to the Hubble — the Solar Probe Mission, the Jupiter Moons Mission, Earth–based satellites, along with vehicles and instruments planned for future lunar and Mars missions.


—Mary–Ann Muffoletto '94