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USU students blast off

news senior writer

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 13:02



Materials used to make satellites, space suits and other space component designs have to be tested before before being launched out of the atmosphere, and no university in the US has conducted more experiments in space than USU.

In 2008, Utah State University launched approximately 180 samples into space as part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment 6, or MISSE-6. The samples were various materials, suspended from the side of the International Space Station for 18 months and then returned to Earth. USU students like Kelby Peterson are now doing analyses on these materials. 

“They’re various materials used in space component design that they put into astronaut satellites, space suits, things like that,” said Peterson, a physics and math major.

Peterson said the materials were tested before they were launched into space. Now that they’re back, those same tests are being conducted to see measure any differences. The analyses will determine the component’s reactions, resistivity and measure light reflectance.

“The goal of our experiments and of MISSE in general is to understand how the space environment effects materials,” said J.R. Dennison, physics professor at USU. “People tend to think of space as nothing, but it turns out that there’s a lot going on.”

Dennison said the experiment was built in 2007 and 2008 by the Getaway Special team, a student run project that’s more than 30 years old and responsible for the fact that USU has flown more experiments in space than any other university in the world. 

The conditions in space can be harsh on the materials, and that’s why they needed to conduct the experiment in a controlled environment, Dennison said.

“The samples are exposed to very bright light, particularly ultraviolet light and X-rays,” Dennison said. “Those get shielded by the Earth’s atmosphere, and so exposure here on Earth is a lot different.”

There are also charged particles that come from the sun, Dennison said. He said in the space shuttle environment, there’s a lot of atomic oxygen that is corrosive and will oxidize and rust the materials. 

“Some of the samples we sent up, when we brought them back they were gone, which is a pretty dramatic effect,” Dennison said.

Peterson said she is focusing on a vapor deposited aluminum coated mylar sample right now that has corrosion like Dennison said.

“It was struck with a micrometeoroid while it was in outer space,” Peterson said. “It came back having lost the layer of aluminum on top.”

Peterson said the aluminum was removed by erosion due to atomic oxygen. 

“The micrometeoroid itself vaporized a hole in it leaving this kind of little chunk in the middle,” Peterson said.

Peterson is part of the material physics group on campus and puts in about 10 hours of work each week at the lab.

“This is just experience for me, I’m not getting any credit for it,” Peterson said. “It’s just something I enjoy. I’ve been doing it for almost two years now, and intend to continue.”

Dennison said experiences like the ones students get through USU programs like this is very valuable for future careers.

“The chance to do hands on experiments, to interact directly with NASA at the level that you can hope to get to somewhere down your career is really really valuable,” Dennison said. “It puts you years ahead of people you’re competing with for entry level jobs.”

Peterson said she enjoys doing research on the materials for various reasons.

“I like it just because it’s an insight into somewhere I’ve never been,” Peterson said. “It’s something most people never get to see, and so while it’s not practical for me to ever go up into space, I can still see how it affects things and how it will impact it’s environment. It’s the little things you don’t think about which is that stuff up there, and I just find it fascinating.”



Twitter: @tmerabradley

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