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In mid July, a spacecraft ferried 16 different materials to the International Space Station so scientists, including those at Kirtland Air Force Base, could study how they would respond to the harsh space environment.
The team of researchers included members from the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate, which is based at Kirtland. The experiment marks the first time scientists will receive periodic feedback to see how the objects are responding to space, where they face multiple types of radiation, atomic oxygen and other challenges.
“The overall mission objective is to expose materials to the space environment and see how they react,” said Ryan Hoffmann, the mission manager.
Hoffmann runs the AFRL’s Spacecraft Charging and Instrument Calibration Lab at Kirtland, which uses vacuum chambers to test materials for use in space. He said the ongoing project allows scientists to test the validity of the vacuum chambers.
Scientists from Georgia Tech Research Institute, NASA and DuPont de Nemours, Inc., are also part of the team.
On July 16, a SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft hauled a box of materials about the size of a small table to the International Space Station for the experiment.
Hoffman said the 16 materials run the gamut. There’s a new type of polyimide film, which is used as a thermal blanket to protect a spacecraft. And there’s a high-tech carbon fiber that’s been used in mountain bikes that will be tested to see if it has promise to be used in a spacecraft. It’s a good candidate because it’s lightweight, he said.
“Over the past 50 years, we took a lot of risks early in the space development. We flew a bunch of materials that we didn’t really know how they would react, we found which ones worked. And then we sort of stuck with those materials,” Hoffmann said. “That works as long as you’re OK just using heritage materials, and not really pushing the pace of spacecraft development.”
Dr. Elena Plis, a senior research engineer at the Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory/Georgia Tech Research Institute who is part of the research project, said the materials on the space station for the experiment could be used in the future for aerospace, avionics and other spacecraft applications.
The box of materials was placed on the outside of the space station by a robot. It will remain there for about six months before it’s hauled back down to earth for more analysis.
While NASA has for years tested different materials in space, Hoffman said this project marks an advancement because the materials can be regularly monitored to see how they are changing. In prior missions, the materials were only analyzed before and after spending time in space.
“You want to understand how it’s going to change over time and what capabilities are possible,” Hoffmann said.