All Press Releases for March 06, 2013

Materials Science Research Rack Heats Up For Valuable Space Station Science


    HUNTSVILLE, AL, March 06, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Have you ever wondered how we develop new materials or find out what properties we can change in existing materials to improve them? Scientists and researchers at NASA are doing just that through materials science research using the Materials Science Research Rack (MSRR) aboard the International Space Station.

Materials science research is the applied study of the properties of matter and substances. This type of research in space benefits from the microgravity environment, and it allows researchers to isolate chemical and thermal properties of materials from the effects of gravity.

The MSRR is about the size of a large refrigerator and contains two furnace inserts that can heat materials to temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Cartridges are placed inside the furnace insert one at a time for processing. Once a cartridge is in place, the experiment can be run from the ground. Processed samples are returned to Earth as soon as possible for evaluation and comparison of their properties to samples from similarly processed cartridges on the ground. Researchers have used the rack to process 16 samples of different materials since the facility launched to the space station in 2009.

In late 2011, there was a loss of communications between the MSRR and the computer that controls it. The automatic safety procedures on the rack caused it to shut down as designed; but, in doing so, it also caused the temperatures inside the furnace to exceed their normal limits. These higher temperatures caused some of the material inside the furnace to become bonded to the furnace itself. This required the station crew to clean the furnace and remove the materials.

To prevent such an event from happening again, Shawn Reagan, manager of the MSRR project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and his team worked with Marshall engineers to design a software upgrade for the MSRR. This update will prevent this scenario from occurring in the future, allowing the facility to begin processing samples again.

"The MSRR has been a great tool in understanding how different materials like ceramics or metals react when heat is applied to them in space," said Reagan. "The original design of the software that controls the MSRR called for it to shut down within 30 seconds of losing communications from the main computer that controls it. Through our experience over the last several years on how the MSRR operates, we were able to design a much more efficient software program that will allow the furnace to stay operating for up to three hours after losing communications. This will give researchers enough time to troubleshoot any problems and prevent any contamination of the furnace due to overheating of materials."

Getting the MSRR back online is important because applied materials science is essential for the development of new, safer, stronger and more durable materials for use throughout everyday life. One of the goals of performing research in space is to gain a better understanding of the role of gravity in the microstructural development during solidification.

One of the first experiments performed on the MSRR melted and solidified an aluminum and silicon alloy. This type of processing typically is used for producing commercially important products such as high temperature turbine blades.

The MSRR was fired up on Jan. 23 and began its work processing the first of 11 new samples that will be tested over the next several months.

"Everything looks great and the first sample was processed successfully," said Reagan. "We are really proud of our team for working through these issues with the MSRR and designing this software to make it work even better. This is what science is all about -- working through challenges and coming out of those with an even better product."

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Jennifer Stanfield / Shannon Ridinger
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
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