Shuttle Discovery returns to Earth after testing high-strength material

Grand Forks, N.D., September 11, 2009 – After 18 months in low Earth orbit, a suite of material coupons developed by the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota and tested in space for their resistance to damage by atomic oxygen and intense ultraviolet light are scheduled to return to Earth today on space shuttle Discovery.

Originally developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory for use in advanced electric power systems, the ceramic material may have uses in a variety of different environments. The coupons were delivered to NASA in the fall of 2006 and will return to the EERC by the end of the year.

The materials are possible candidates for meteoroid protection and as heat shields on spacecraft. The first possible landing opportunity is at 7:05 p.m. EDT at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The coupons are made up of an extremely hard ceramic (silicon carbide combined with a polymer) and were tested on the International Space Station as part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment 6 (MISSE-6) mission.

The objective of the mission is to subject materials that could be used in spaceflight by NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, or other federal and private agencies to a harsh space environment to study the material’s stability and long-term survivability.

“The MISSE-6 containers were retrieved during the first space walk of mission STS 128,” said John Hurley, EERC Senior Research Advisor. “They were stowed in the shuttle Discovery’s hold and will be opened at NASA Langley sometime in September or October, photographed in detail, and then our samples will be removed and sent back to us,” he said.

A total of eight EERC coupons, 3 inches long by 1 inch wide, were placed, along with other test items, into large cases that were launched into space on the Shuttle Endeavour on March 10, 2008. Initially, the astronaut deploying the cases during a scheduled spacewalk was unable to attach the cases to the space station because of debris blocking the insertion of a pin to hold the case in place. Finally, on the last spacewalk of the mission, the astronaut was able to insert the pin with a hammer, and the cases were opened for exposure to space.

Hurley says the coupons orbited the Earth about 8,000 times, or about 200 million miles, more than twice the distance to the sun and back.

“Once the materials are sent back to the EERC, we will inspect them to see how they fared in space,” said Hurley. “Specifically, we’ll inspect for large impacts of the exposed surfaces to help spot meteoroid/debris impacts. We are in the process of securing funding to do an in-depth analysis with our electron microscopes inside our lab facilities here in Grand Forks.”

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