The IMPRESS project saw the first launch of an experimental payload, the Electromagnetic Levitator, onboard an ESA/DLR-funded Texus 42 sounding rocket, from the Esrange launch site near Kiruna in northern Sweden, on 1 December at 10:06 hours CET.
This experimental payload, jointly developed by ESA and the DLR, enables accurate measurement of the properties of highly-reactive liquid metal alloys. Such measurements are unattainable on Earth and will greatly benefit the project.
Intermetallic Materials Processing in Relation to Earth and Space Solidification (IMPRESS) is a multi-million euro materials science project co-funded by ESA and the European Commission. The project, which currently involves 150 materials scientists from across Europe and Russia, aims to develop new intermetallic alloys for industrial applications such as gas turbine blades and hydrogen fuel cells.
During the 6 minutes and 37 seconds of weightless conditions provided by the sounding rocket, the Levitator performed as planned. During the flight, scientific and housekeeping data as well as video images of the sample were received in real-time and closely monitored by engineers and scientists at the Esrange ground station. Although more time will be needed for a full analysis of the scientific data, the initial prognosis is very promising.
“This launch is a major step forward in zero-g experimentation for the IMPRESS project”, said David Jarvis, ESA Project Manager. “The next generation of intermetallics developed under IMPRESS has the potential to make Europe a world leader in the strategically-important area of materials science. The economic significance of this should not be underestimated, as turbine production and fuel-cell development is currently a multi-billion euro industry, the growth of which is set to continue.”
The coming weeks will be busy ones for the science team, led by Dr Rainer Wunderlich and Prof. Hans-Jörg Fecht from the University of Ulm, Germany, as it pores over the thermophysical properties data obtained during the flight. Eventually, that data will be used under the IMPRESS project to improve computer modelling of advanced solidification processes. This research is of major importance to the casting industry in Europe and will ultimately lead to the next generation of materials for aircraft jet engines.
“The success of this mission is thanks to the careful preparation by the IMPRESS science team, the industrial development team led by EADS-Space Transportation, Bremen and Friedrichshafen in Germany and the operational support team at the DLR Microgravity User Support Centre in Cologne and at Esrange” said Wolfgang Herfs, ESA's Sounding Rocket Project Manager.
With further sounding-rocket flights planned, the IMPRESS project will also be making extensive use of European facilities onboard the International Space Station - including the Electromagnetic Levitator - to perform benchmark experiments on intermetallic alloys.
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