Exposing Students to Space Research
The MISSE experiment with Earth visible in the background

MISSE-6 was mounted outside the International Space Station’s Columbus Laboratory Module during the STS-123 shuttle mission. Image Credit: NASA

Nothing is quite like the void of space.

From exposure to vacuum and radiation to a wide range of temperatures, conditions outside a spacecraft are extreme. As a result, those conditions can have extreme effects on anything subjected to them.

Thanks to an experiment conducted at the International Space Station, space science and engineering students at Montana State University have the opportunity to learn about those effects.

NASA scientists and engineers have a variety of reasons for wanting to know about the effects of exposure to the space environment. For example, spacecraft designers who are considering using a previously unflown material on a vehicle conduct experiments to know how it will hold up in space before using it in missions. Space scientists can learn more about the universe by studying the effects of space exposure in controlled conditions. Seeing how samples are affected reveals information about the environment to which they are exposed. Scientists can also increase their knowledge of the impact of space and spaceflight on living organisms.

To some extent, individual conditions in space can be reproduced on Earth. For example, scientists may use vacuum chambers or equipment that replicates the solar radiation encountered in Earth orbit. But there's still no better laboratory for studying the exact combinations of the conditions of spaceflight than space itself.

That's the purpose of the Materials International Space Station Experiment. MISSE is actually a series of experiments, in which suitcase-sized containers are mounted outside the space station. Small samples of many different materials are mounted in trays in the containers. Samples tested in the MISSE project have included materials such as new thermal-control coatings, spacecraft components such as mirrors and switches, and biological specimens such as seeds. Spacewalking astronauts attach the cases to the outside of the space station and then open them so that the trays are exposed. The first MISSE racks were launched in August 2001 and returned to Earth in August 2005.

In March 2008, the sixth set of MISSE experiments was carried to the International Space Station on the STS-123 space shuttle Endeavour mission. Among the 400 specimens included in MISSE-6 were experiments prepared by students and faculty at MSU.

Two experiments were prepared by a team of students led by Dave Klumpar, the director of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory. Through the lab, students design, build and operate small satellites. The team's MISSE experiments related to that work. One of the team's MISSE-6 experiments included 17 polymer filaments and commercial fishing line. The filaments were being reviewed for potential use in future space tether research. Space tethers can be used for a variety of purposes, including moving satellites in space. The other experiment involved testing a standard circuit board used in consumer electronics to compare its ability to weather space conditions with that of hardware specifically designed for spaceflight. Students use off-the-shelf electronics to build their satellite projects.

The laboratory team has participated in multiple MISSE projects and is currently preparing samples for MISSE-7, which is planned for a summer 2009 launch.

A square tray with several samples mounted inside

Samples are visible in this close-up picture of one of the MISSE-6 racks. Image Credit: Montana State University

Another MISSE experiment was prepared by students mentored by Tim Minton, an MSU chemistry professor. He led a team of students that conducted materials research in simulated spaceflight conditions. The experiment involved polymer film samples, which were mounted on sensors. The sensors provide real-time data on the mass of samples while they are in space. This data allows the team to monitor the effects of atomic oxygen found in space, which erodes materials it comes in contact with. The films are designed to better withstand atomic oxygen exposure.

In addition to the MISSE-6 samples, the STS-123 shuttle mission carried another experiment from MSU. MSU microbiologist Barry Pyle worked with students to prepare an experiment involving common bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, that have stowed away in the water supply of previous shuttle flights. Unlike the MISSE samples, the bacteria specimens remained inside the space shuttle. They returned with Endeavour at the end of the almost-16-day mission. The purpose of the experiment was to gain insight into the effects of spaceflight on microbes. According to NASA scientists, understanding fundamental space adaptation mechanisms may lead to novel applications and risk reduction for use on Earth and space exploration. STS-123 was the second time the experiment was flown; it was originally part of the STS-107 space shuttle Columbia mission in 2003. However, when Columbia broke apart during re-entry, all the research results of the bacteria experiments were lost.

The research by the MSU Space Science and Engineering Laboratory team received funding from the Montana Space Grant Consortium. The consortium also provided funding for Pyle's students to travel to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to prepare the bacteria experiment for flight and to retrieve it afterwards. Pyle's experiment was also funded by the NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Advanced Capabilities Division as part of its biological research.

Implemented by NASA in 1989, the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program contributes to science by funding research, education and public service projects through a national network of 52 university-based Space Grant consortia in the United States. These consortia administer projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The Space Grant project supports NASA's education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

By exposing these experiments to space environment conditions, these students are helping to learn how to better prepare for future spaceflights. And by exposing these students to research opportunities, the Montana Space Grant Consortium is helping to prepare the workforce that will make those future missions possible.

Related Resources
NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program
Past MISSE Experiments   →
Microbial Drug Resistance Virulence Research
International Space Station
NASA Education Web Site   →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services