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University of Maryland Science Experiments Blasting off for ISS

By Chris Carroll


Courtesy of Peter Sunderland

An experiment examining how flames create soot and pollution and three other UMD projects blasted off on Aug. 14 to the International Space Station.

With research ranging from fire safety and prevention of harmful microbial growth in space to solving longstanding cosmological mysteries, the University of Maryland is expanding its scientific footprint on the International Space Station.

A SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 14 carrying hardware for projects from faculty and student researchers in physics, fire protection engineering, bioengineering and chemistry, among other International Space Station (ISS) supplies. It represents an unprecedented number of UMD experiments in a single launch to the station, university officials say.

The UMD connection will grow even stronger next May. That’s when astronaut Jeanette Epps M.S. ’94, Ph.D. ‘00 is scheduled to begin a months-long mission as a crew member on the ISS. Among her duties, she may help tend to the UMD-linked experiments, which include:

ISS-CREAM in Orbit

Cosmic rays are high-energy particles from beyond … and we don’t know a whole lot more than that.

“More than 100 years after their discovery, we still don’t really understand them or know where they are coming from,” says Eun-Suk Seo, a professor of physics leading the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass project (ISS-CREAM, pronounced “ice cream”). The three-year project will feature a refrigerator-sized cosmic ray detector mounted to a Japanese section of the ISS.

Far above the atmosphere, which largely blocks cosmic rays and allows only indirect study of them at ground level, ISS-CREAM will let Seo and her team study the highest-energy cosmic rays ever directly observed.

Seo hopes the project will fill in science’s spotty knowledge about the origin and acceleration of the particles, which originate beyond the solar system and travel at nearly the speed of light, perhaps providing clues about other mysteries of space, like the nature of dark matter and the life cycles of stars and galaxies.

Fire Protection in Space

You can’t just pull a fire alarm and evacuate when you’re orbiting 250 miles above Earth. Helping ensure that’s never an issue is the goal of one of two Department of Fire Protection Engineering experiments going to the ISS.

“Astronauts sit through a lot of science presentations in their line of work, but when you mention fire, they sit up and take notice,” says Peter Sunderland, a professor of fire protection engineering. “That’s a life-and-death thing for them.”

The Burning Rate Emulator experiment is designed to test the fire risk of various materials in orbital microgravity. Because it would be highly unwise to simply take a selection of materials aloft and ignite them, the experiment relies on simulation—mixing gaseous fuels and inerts to mimic the fire behavior of a wide spectrum of things found on a spacecraft, all in a small, safe, self-contained package.

A second experiment will test spherical flames—which occur naturally when there isn’t enough gravity to impart the familiar teardrop shape—as a component of research into how flames create soot and pollution.

Battling Biofilms

Biofilms are slimy layers of bacteria that stick to each other and to surfaces, which makes the microbes more resistant to attempts to annihilate them than individual bacteria. In a small, enclosed spacecraft on a long mission, the health risk of biofilm formation, which causes infections and contaminations, could eclipse what it would normally be in a terrestrial environment

An undergraduate project by bioengineering major Stacey Mannuel ’19 and physics, chemistry and cell biology degree candidate Colton Treadway ’19 will test a common method to reduce biofilms on Earth, and see if it transfers to space, where biofilms outperform their terrestrial relatives.

“Biofilms have already been shown to grow faster in microgravity than they do here,” Treadway says. “We’d like to figure out if metal-impregnated silicone would be a good solution to biofilm growth on the space station.”

It’s the second Terp undergraduate-led experiment with an astronaut-protection theme to catch a ride to the space station this year; another aimed at measuring how bacteria behave in space was launched in March, and students are currently analyzing results.

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