Five experiments testing everything from how fire reacts in space to the effectiveness of a lizard-inspired adhesive are headed to the International Space Station on Tuesday, March 22.
NASA’s commercial partner Orbital ATK Inc. is scheduled to launch the Cygnus spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft will take several experiments into space including one the University of Central Florida and Texas A&M worked on together for NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
While the Saffire-I experiment will investigate spacecraft fire safety under low-gravity conditions and the Gecko Gripper experiment will test a gecko-adhesive gripping device that can stick on command in the harsh environment of space, the Strata-1 experiment, led by Marc Fries at NASA-JSC, will study the properties and behavior of the impact-shattered “soil” found on asteroids, comets, the Moon and other airless worlds. UCF’s Center for Microgravity Research supplied the experiment apparatus for Strata-1 while partners at Texas A&M supplied the electronics to Fries and his team at NASA.
According to NASA, the Strata-1 investigation could give us answers about how layers of loose, heterogeneous superficial material covering solid rock “behave and moves in microgravity, how easy or difficult it is to anchor a spacecraft in regolith, how it interacts with spacecraft and spacesuit materials, and other important properties. This will help NASA learn how to safely move and process large volumes of regolith, and predict and prevent risk to spacecraft and astronauts visiting these small bodies.”
“Compared to some of the other experiments this time around, ours doesn’t sound incredibly sexy,” said professor Joshua Colwell, who led the UCF effort. Space Florida helped fund the UCF component of this experiment. “But it is important especially as we get ready to send spacecraft and people to asteroids and eventually Mars. It’s a great time to be working on space science. We’ve been quite busy with many different projects related to that next frontier.”
Colwell has already sent several experiment to the space station and has been working for the past seven years on an experiment that will launch aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard’s spacecraft. Blue Origin has been working on its rockets for several years, and in 2009 Colwell and two other scientists from Purdue and LSU were selected to build different experiments to fly aboard the spacecraft. No date has been announced for a flight, but work continues on the project.
The Blue Origin project called “Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics” (MEDEA) is aimed at shedding light on the process by which space dust builds up to form planets, or the rings around those planets. Results from the experiment will also likely aid scientists as they look to put together missions to other planets.
UCF Professor Humberto Campins and associate professor Yan Fernandez are working on the science component of one such mission – Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer more commonly known as OSIRIS REx . The University of Arizona-led mission is scheduled to launch to the asteroid Bennu to collect samples later this year. The spacecraft is expected to reach the asteroid in 2018 and will use a robotic arm to nab samples from its target. Once the samples are securely onboard, the spacecraft would return to earth in 2023.