Nov 2, 2006

NASA/Marshall Microgravity Science 1997 Science Stories

1997 Science Highlights: Microgravity Science

Science In Space

The ability to use new materials for new purposes has always driven civilization and technology, and given names to the Stone Age, the Iron Age, and the Bronze Age. In the Space Age, missions like those developed by SSL let us use space as a unique laboratory to gain key insights into phenomena that gravity masks on Earth so unique new materials may serve as the building blocks for our future.

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Understanding the Human Body

fish egg protein grown in space
The human body holds more than 300,000 types of proteins, each with specific roles in bodily functions. Yet we only know the structure of less than 1% of these. By going to space, we are often able to grow protein crystals of extremely high quality and uniformity. When returned to Earth, these crystals can be studied to extract the precise three-dimensional structure of the protein - its blueprint. From that, we then can better understand exactly how the protein works in the body, and can devise strategic ways to manipulate its effects, enabling an immune response to disease, or disabling a detrimental effect. MSL-1 and four other missions hosted experiments in protein crystal growth (PCG) in the Shuttle middeck, or carried PCG equipment to the Mir space station.

computer-generated molecular protein crystal
Understanding how molecules of proteins and of contaminants move through a solution is the challenge taken up scientists with the Interferometer Protein Crystal Growth (IPCG) apparatus launched to Mir in August 1997. IPCG, developed by SSL, uses light to reveal density differences in solutions as lysozyme crystals grow in a thin glass cell. Crews aboard Mir operate IPCG inside the glovebox. Video images, taken through a 50-power microscope and polarizing filters, will be analyzed in 1998 to calculate how fast molecules diffuse through the solution. This should improve growth techniques for a variety of PCG experiments.

Learn more about protein crystal growth in space, and biotechnology research at NASA/Marshall!!!

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Microgravity Science Laboratory

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The first Microgravity Sciences Laboratory (MSL-1) was among the most successful missions in the history of our "science in space" research. With experiments in combustion, materials science, and protein crystal growth, a full 16 days of scientific investigations helped set the stage for long-term experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Droplet Combustion Experiment
MSL-1 also holds the distinction of being the only Shuttle mission to refly with payload and crew unchanged. The importance of MSL-1's science led NASA to take the unprecedented step of scheduling a reflight in July after orbiter problems cut the first flight short in April. On this near-perfect second flight, scientists explored the fundamentals of combustion, to gain knowledge critical to improving the fuel efficiency and reduce pollution of tomorrow's internal combustion engines. NASA/Marshall scientists were instrumental in a variety of materials science investigations using Germany's TEMPUS electromagnetic levitation furnace. In particular, these scientists studied the "undercooling" behavior of a variety of interesting metals and alloys. Undercooling occurs when a material is taken to a temperature below its normal freezing or solidifying point, yet still remains in the liquid state. This was done to define fundamental properties of various metals, and to study the potential for creating new forms of metals and alloys that cannot be made through normal ground-processing methods.

Learn more about science conducted aboard the Microgravity Science Laboratory Flights in 1997!!!

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Electrostatic Levitator Facility

A new and unique materials research facility was established in November 1997 at NASA/Marshall with the delivery of the Electrostatic Levitator Facility. Using electrostatic forces, this facility can levitate small metallic and non-metallic samples in order to process them in a variety of ways without having to place the material in some form of a container. Typically this type of research is done in facilities aboard the space-shuttle, an example of which is the TEMPUS facility flown aboard MSL-1. However space flight is both expensive and infrequent, and scientists would like a method to carry out similar experimentation on the ground to maximize both the amount of scientific knowledge, as well as the productivity of space-flight experimentation.

The ESL facility at NASA/Marshall will provide scientists with the ability to perform containerless processing of materials on the ground, similar to methods currently used in space. Scientists can study unique and novel materials in the undercooled state, and measure a material's so-called "thermophysical properties," properties of the material that depend on temperature, such as its density, surface tension, viscosity, and specific heat capacity without the influence of a container. Understanding these properties, and having the ability to process new materials in the absence of a container will provide NASA/Marshall scientists, as well as scientists from around the world, with key new experimental capabilities to further our knowledge of many fundamental materials science processes.

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United States Microgravity Payload

usmp-4 logo 1997's other major microgravity mission, the fourth United States Microgravity Payload (USMP-4), comprised four major experiment facilities mounted on a special structure in the orbiter payload bay, and several experiments using the Middeck Glovebox. Among other things, USMP-4 addressed fundamental aspects of the transition when a liquid material becomes solid, and how that transition influences the large-scale mechanical and electrical properties of the finished product.

earth-grown vs space-grown semiconductor
NASA/Marshall scientists were co-investigators on two of the USMP-4 experiments. In the Particle Pushing and Engulfment (PEP) experiment, scientists look at what happens as a molten material solidifies and either pushes particles ahead of the freeze front (like ice shoving dirt particles out of the way), or engulfs them. The results will help in applications ranging from road bed design to formulas for advanced composite materials. In the Advanced Automated Directional Solidification Furnace (AADSF), scientists will attempt to better understand the formation of a semiconductor material called mercury-cadmium-telluride. The performance of this material, which is an essential component in infrared detectors, for example, is highly dependent on the uniformity of its composition. This uniformity can be degraded by gravity-induced effects such as convection or other types of fluid flow. Knowledge gained from this experiment aboard USMP-4 will be critical in understanding how to make higher quality semiconductors on earth with improved performance characteristics.

Learn more about science conducted aboard the United States Microgravity Payload 4 Flight in 1997!!!

1997 Highlights
Physics and Astronomy
1997 Highlights in
Earth Science

Authors: Dr. John Horack, Dave Dooling
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: Dr. Gregory S. Wilson, Director

Last updated November 19, 1997