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NASA uses ND designs on shuttle

Becky Hogan | Thursday, March 20, 2008

Science research enthusiasm at Notre Dame has recently intensified as the NASA space shuttle Endeavor – launched Mar. 11 – carried with it a set of experiments designed by one of Notre Dame’s own professors.

Dennis Jacobs, University vice president and associate Provost, designed the experiments for outer space testing purposes. Jacobs is also a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Notre Dame.

“We are placing one hundred or so materials outside the international space station for a period of a year to learn under different environments how different materials will either hold up or be damaged to the point where they no longer function,” Jacobs said.

The experiments are part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), a collaboration that aims to explore how materials degrade in the low-earth orbit spacecraft environment.

Jacobs said the experiments will test materials such as Teflon in order to aid in the development of next-generation light-weight polymers that could be used in designing satellites.

“The goal of the experiments is to understand better how materials are eroded or degraded in the lower-earth orbit spacecraft environment,” he said.

The MISSE-6 experiments will give researchers a better understanding of the conditions in the lower-earth orbit, as well as clarify misconceptions about outer space.

“Most people think of space as a vacuum – that there’s nothing there… But the lower-earth orbit is 250 miles above the surface of the earth and it’s actually a very hostile environment,” Jacobs said. “The kinds of collisions that happen when a shuttle moves at 1,500 miles per hour are so energetic that a material exposed to this environment is often under attack by the elements.”

Jacobs also said that this hostile environment is not protected by an ozone layer, causing intense ultraviolet light to affect the space station, an occurrence that could be potentially harmful to the various materials used in making satellites.

To test these factors, materials are exposed to different elements by placing modified controls on the materials, according Jacobs.

Additionally, Jacobs said that small data recorders have been installed which collect and record information about the samples every 20 minutes throughout the yearlong period.

Not only will the space experiments help to identify environmental effects on materials, but they will also determine whether space environment simulations that have been taking place in Jacob’s lab are accurate.

“We’ve been doing experiments in our lab at Notre Dame that we think simulate the space environment,” Jacobs said. “This experiment will be an opportunity to compare our simulation of the space environment with the reality of space.”

Jacobs’ research team has been working with six other universities on the MISSE-6 experiment, including the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Pittsburgh, Montana State University and Utah State University.

“We were invited as a team to see if we would like to launch the MISSE-6 experiment,” Jacobs said. “Notre Dame stepped up in a big way to spearhead the effort.”

After approximately one year, the materials will be retrieved and examined to assess the cumulative effects of the lower-earth orbit environment.

“Experiments like this are wholly consistent with the University’s mission to contribute to the advancement of knowledge,” Jacobs said. “We hope that out contributions have an impact and that those advancements lead to an increased understanding of materials in the space environment.”