NASA to test materials on Air Force space plane

Test materials include polymers, composites and coatings.

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NASA is expanding its materials science research by testing experiments on the U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane. By flying the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation on the X-37B, materials scientists have the opportunity to expose almost 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is building on data acquired during the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013.

“By exposing materials to space and returning the samples to Earth, we gain valuable data about how the materials hold up in the environment in which they will have to operate,” said Miria Finckenor, the co-investigator on the MISSE experiment and principal investigator for METIS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. “Spacecraft designers can use this information to choose the best material for specific applications, such as thermal protection or antennas or any other space hardware.”

Finckenor leads a team of investigators from other NASA centers, aerospace companies and universities. For both MISSE and METIS, the customers supply small quarter-size samples. METIS will fly a variety of materials including polymers, composites and coatings. Finckenor prepares the samples for flight and helps with post-flight sample analysis.

Researchers are flying some materials as part of METIS that also were tested during MISSE. Testing the same types of materials again can help scientists verify results obtained on the orbital outpost. If researchers see different results between the same type of materials used on both METIS and MISSE, it would help scientists learn about the differences experienced in various orbital environments.

“When we flew newly developed static-dissipative coatings on MISSE-2, we did not know they would be used for both the Curiosity rover and the SpaceX Dragon,” Finckenor said. “Some program we don't know about now will be successful because engineers found the data they needed.”

The METIS experiment complements the station research, looking at a variety of materials of interest for use on spacecraft built by NASA, industry and other government agencies. The materials flown in space are potential candidates to replace obsolescent materials with environmentally-friendly options.