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Technology Journey – Materials Science from Space to Earth

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Wed Mar 17, 2010 9:53 am via: NASA
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala., (NASA) — The first American research sample processed in the International Space Station’s Materials Science Laboratory was opened for study today at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The Materials Science Laboratory, a furnace facility housed in the new Materials Science Research Rack, was developed and is operated by the European Space Agency aboard the International Space Station. The research rack was developed and built at the Marshall Center.

The first sample cartridge returned to Earth contains an aluminum silicon alloy that was melted and resolidified on orbit. The experiment was controlled by commands from the ground and monitored by scientists David Poirier, Robert Erdman and Matthew Goodman from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Scientists will compare the sample to an Earth-based recreation of the experiment conducted by Surendra Tewari of Cleveland State University in Ohio. Tewari will join the Arizona team to analyze and dissect the sample from orbit.

Research conducted in the environment of microgravity, such as that found aboard the International Space Station, enables scientists to understand the relationships among the processing, structure and properties of a variety of materials. The goal of studying materials processing in space is to develop a better understanding of the chemical and physical mechanisms involved. Scientists look at these relationships to understand how to improve processing techniques and control defects when materials are manufactured here on Earth. Understanding how to optimize the processing of materials can lead to enhanced materials which result in innovations such as increased speed in computers, reduced pollution and improved fiber optics, and enable medical breakthroughs to cure disease.

Scientists know that gravity interferes with the formation of crystals when melted alloys flow into casts on Earth. With the sample processed on the space station, however, they hope to find a more perfect version of the alloy.

“Our objective is to optimize the processing of materials today and create innovative materials with enhanced properties for the future,” said Dr. Frank Szofran, a microgravity materials science project manager and discipline scientist in Marshall’s Materials and Processes Laboratory.”The goal of studying materials and substances in space is to develop a better understanding of thermal and chemical properties. Equipped with this knowledge, we can reliably predict conditions that are vital to develop improved materials on Earth.”

“Materials science applies the theoretical framework of physics and insights from the fields of chemistry, engineering, mathematics and computer science to build links between structure, processing and properties,” said Dr. Francis Chiaramonte, program executive for physical sciences at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These links can lead to the improvement of the properties of known materials, such as steel or silicon, and the development of new materials.”

The Materials Science Research Rack is a cooperative effort between the Marshall Center and the European Space Agency. Marshall has played a lead role in developing international partnerships through the management of science missions, such as the materials science rack, for the space station and the center’s heritage in managing more than 20 Spacelab missions.

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