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CASIS Holds Webinar for Opportunities Aboard International Space Station
11.16.12
 
This image shows the Materials on International Space Station Experiment - 8 (MISSE-8), a test bed for materials and computing elements attached to the outside of the orbiting laboratory to evaluate the effects of atomic oxygen, ultraviolet, direct sunlight, radiation, and extremes of heat and cold. (Credit: NASA) This image shows the Materials on International Space Station Experiment - 8 (MISSE-8), a test bed for materials and computing elements attached to the outside of the orbiting laboratory to evaluate the effects of atomic oxygen, ultraviolet, direct sunlight, radiation, and extremes of heat and cold. (Credit: NASA)
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The new NanoRacks External Platform will mount external to the International Space Station (see arrow), enabling researchers to conduct investigations in the space environment using small containers that sit outside of  the orbiting laboratory. (NASA) The new NanoRacks External Platform will mount external to the International Space Station (see arrow), enabling researchers to conduct investigations in the space environment using small containers that sit outside of the orbiting laboratory. (Credit: NASA)
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On Nov. 13, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and NanoRacks hosted a webinar to discuss a Request for Proposals (RFP) to perform new materials science research in the unique microgravity environment of the International Space Station.

Using the new NanoRacks External Platform, researchers can now conduct investigations in space using small containers that sit outside of the orbiting laboratory. This platform serves as the first permanent hardware on the outside of space station that allows researchers to take small experiments in and out of the space environment for long-term studies in a variety of fields. CASIS issued the RFP in September and will award top proposals with grant funding and access to the new platform.

"This platform is the first of its kind," said NanoRacks' Chief Technology Officer Michael Johnson. "Never before in history have we had this kind of access to an orbiting platform at this unique altitude."

While the boxes can enable impressive observations of the Earth and space, the payloads also come into contact with the harsh conditions of the space environment. This includes exposure to radiation, atomic oxygen (a damaging form of the oxygen molecule) and temperatures that cycle between extremes (392 to -328 degrees Fahrenheit).

CASIS reserved the first spaces on the external minilabs in April as part of a $1.5 million deal to enable construction on the external platforms to start a year ahead of schedule. The deal fulfilled part of the CASIS mission to enhance the capabilities of the International Space Station National Lab.

"The opportunities are limitless," said CASIS Chief Operating Officer Duane Ratliff. "The platform opens the door for all kinds of new discoveries, and this initial RFP will help determine the most promising avenues of materials research scientists from academia and industry are excited about pursuing."

Materials science research in space is not new; it began in the 1970s. Through the year 2000, the U.S. Skylab, the Soviet Salyut 6 and Salyut 7, the Russian Mir and the U.S. space shuttles (among other facilities) all hosted experiments evaluating the durability of various materials and devices in the extreme space environment. Starting in 2001, the space station began providing a much sought-after, reliable home for long-term experiments in materials exposure.

Much of previous materials research is from the Materials International Space Station Experiment, or MISSE, series of experiments on the station. Samples studied in MISSE include plastics, ceramics, sensors, solar cells, semiconductors, and devices for optics. MISSE also included biological experiments, including investigations of spores, bacteria and plant seeds. However, access to MISSE, and other research external to station in materials science and other fields, typically requires complex robotics or astronaut activity outside the orbiting laboratory, which is time consuming and expensive.

The NanoRacks External Platform overcomes this cost and access hurdle. Simple robotics can accomplish any manipulation outside the station required for experiments using the shoebox-like containers. The size of the containers is one of the biggest benefits. Previous methods for such research used very large hardware and containers, which took up a lot of space on transport vehicles and required large robotics. The NanoRacks containers are petite, easily transported to and from the inside of the station and easily sliding in and out of airlocks to the outside platform.

Finally, the ability to retrieve samples from outside the space station and return them down to Earth is an improvement over most past methods. These studies often were launched into open space, transmitting data from a free-flying state or requiring capture after re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

CASIS was selected by NASA in July 2011 to maximize use of the International Space Station National Laboratory through 2020. CASIS is dedicated to supporting and accelerating innovations and new discoveries that will enhance the health and wellbeing of people and our planet. The CASIS goal is to bring the magic of space down to Earth.

 
 
Emily White
CASIS