University launches new materials to the International Space Station

Researchers from The University of Manchester have developed new, “aerodynamic” materials, which have been sent to the International Space Station (ISS) for testing.

The materials were carried to the ISS from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, in a science carrier from Alpha Space Test & Research Alliance of Houston, Texas, on-board a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply vehicle which launched on 2 November.

Now deployed on the exterior of the ISS, the materials will be exposed to the harsh LEO (Low Earth Orbit) environment, to investigate their erosion properties. After six months, they will be returned to Earth for analysis, where it is hoped they will be used in a new generation of very-low-orbit satellites.

The experiments form part of the DISCOVERER project, a Horizon 2020 project on which the University is the lead partner. DISCOVERER is developing technologies to enable the commercially viable operation of satellites in very low Earth orbits, below an altitude of around 450 km, where drag from the residual atmosphere has a significant impact on spacecraft design.

Dr Peter Roberts
“Very low Earth orbits have many benefits, improving payload performance whilst also allowing satellites to be smaller and use less power.”
Dr Peter Roberts
The material samples on a transfer tray, going into the airlock for external deployment.

Dr Peter Roberts, scientific coordinator for DISCOVERER and principal investigator for the University’s contribution, commented on the launch; “If the materials have the properties we believe that they do, they have the potential to significantly reduce the drag acting on satellites in very low orbits, opening a new orbital regime for communications and remote sensing satellites.”

He added; “Very low Earth orbits have many benefits, improving payload performance whilst also allowing satellites to be smaller and use less power. They also represent a uniquely sustainable environment in low Earth orbit as atmospheric drag rapidly removes space debris and uncontrolled satellites when they reach the end of their operational lives.”

As part of the DISCOVERER project, the University is also helping to develop a small satellite, called the Satellite for Orbital Aerodynamics Research (SOAR). Due to be launched in summer 2020, SOAR will further investigate the aerodynamic properties of the materials, by examining the drag and lift of the spacecraft.

In addition, the DISCOVERER project has developed a Rarefied Orbital Aerodynamics Research facility (ROAR). Here, researchers are able to replicate the flow of gases at orbital velocities to determine how the gas scatters from materials.

The ISS deployment was made possible by Alpha Space Test & Research Alliance, which owns and operates the Materials on the International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) facility, under agreements with NASA and the International Space Station National Laboratory (ISSNL).

The DISCOVERER project has received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under grant agreement No. 737183.

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