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Space Station Will Put Experimenters 'On The Rack'

July 16, 1998
The first of three facilities to study the fundamentals of how materials form will be placed on board the International Space Station in early 2002.

The first of three facilities to study the fundamentals of how materials form will be placed on board the International Space Station in early 2002, according to Dr. Frank R. Szofran, project scientist for the Materials Science Research Facility (MSRF).

Details of how the U.S. Laboratory Module will be used were given this afternoon in a special briefing by Szofran, a materials scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, and David A. Schaefer, MSRF project manager, at the opening of the Third Biennial Microgravity Materials Science Conference in Huntsville.

The microgravity of space has become an important tool for scientists developing highly sophisticated materials and processes for use in advanced electronics, structures, engines, and other products now and in the 21st century. In microgravity - also called weightlessness or (improperly) zero-g - fluids no longer convect or flow because one part is lighter or heavier than the other.

Under these conditions, materials scientists can conduct a number of activities ranging from determining fundamental properties that control how materials form and how they behave, to actually producing small, high-value products for use on Earth.

Since the Skylab space station in 1973 and through the Space Shuttle and Spacelab missions in 1983-97, NASA has sponsored a long line of microgravity materials research. It will continue in the 21st century as the International Space Station is assembled and becomes a major research facility, including a U.S. Laboratory Module, with facilities for research in biotechnology, fluid physics, combustion, and life sciences. Three Materials Science Research Racks (MSRR) will be a major portion of these facilities.

"The first Materials Science Research Rack is pretty well defined," Szofran said in describing an Experiment Module (EM) that will occupy the right half of the rack. The European Space Agency will provide the core for the EM which will house five insert modules. NASA and ESA each will provide two inserts, and the German Space Agency (DLR) will provide a fifth.

Each of the five inserts will be a furnace to process materials in different ways, such as directional solidification - melting and freezing a sample from one end to the other - or quenching a sample quickly to "freeze" its condition. The German insert will be a special furnace that uses a rotating magnetic field to control flows within the molten samples.

The left half of the rack will be occupied for nine months by equipment from NASA's Space Products Development Division, then be made available to microgravity science researchers.

The first rack will be carried to the lab module on the STS-117 Space Shuttle flight (UF-3 assembly). The second Materials Science Research Rack is set for STS-121 (UF-5) in September 2002. No flight has been selected for the third rack.

The Experiment Modules and their inserts will be replaceable in orbit, so an entire rack will not have to be returned to Earth.

"The plans for Materials Science Research Racks 2 and 3 are that there will be a single experiment module in each," Szofran said, with the experiment support systems taking the left half of the rack and an Experiment Module taking the right half. What they will carry will be selected over the next year or two. NASA selected scientists in March 1996 and earlier to develop science experiments for the materials racks. Detailed reviews over the next 9 to 18 months will give NASA the information it needs to schedule development of flight hardware.

"All of this is subject to negotiations with our international partners," Szofran said. Like NASA, ESA, Japan's National Space Development Agency, and the Russian Space Agency will attach several pressurized lab modules to ISS; other partners like DLR and the space agencies of Canada, Brazil, and Italy will provide individual experiments.

"It's possible that we will not need to build all of those Experiment Modules, or we may incorporate an international Experiment Module if it satisfies the needs of our scientists and our partners."

The next round of selections for experiments using the Materials Science Research Facility starts with a NASA Research Announcement (NRA) expected in December 1998.

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