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A European Space Agency project has its sights set high – taking materials science into space. Rocket experiments are being used to test some remarkable materials called intermetallics . They are compounds of metals with some revolutionary applications. By sending these high-performance materials into space, scientists can test how they behave – without gravity getting in the way.
A sounding rocket launching from the Arctic Circle.
The experiments are performed on a rocket loaded with equipment which melts the intermetallics and monitors how their structures and properties change. The data are beamed back to Earth, where scientists can then scrutinise them to improve how the intermetallics are used. Their results could lead to lighter, less polluting jet plane engines and cheaper hydrogen fuel cells.
Gravity affects how materials behave. By investigating what happens to materials in the absence of gravity, scientists can better predict how they will behave when gravity intervenes on Earth.
To achieve this, scientists set up a lab on board a space-bound rocket. When the rocket free-falls back to Earth, the effect of gravity is reduced to as little as a millionth of its force on Earth, a level called ‘microgravity’. By experimenting with the intermetallics in microgravity, scientists gain a deep understanding of their exact properties.
Watch the sounding rocket launch from the Arctic Circle.
The experiments reach space on board a ‘Texus’ sounding rocket. The rocket is propelled from a launch site within the Arctic Circle and carries a group of experiments called the payload. Once it reaches a height of around 100 km, the motor cuts out; the payload continues to climb to a height of around 250 km and then falls back to Earth. This ‘free fall’ provides six minutes of microgravity to conduct the experiments. A parachute attached to the payload returns the experiments safely to ground level.
Once at the right height, the rocket motor cuts out and the module containing the experiments is detached. The module keeps climbing until it reaches a height of around 250 km. It then begins free-falling back to Earth.
Microgravity starts when the rocket detaches itself from the module in the Earth’s atmosphere. It continues until a parachute opens to glide the module safely back to Earth – around six minutes in total.
Find out more about why scientists experiment in microgravity
The payload module is loaded with equipment to test the intermetallic materials. One experiment investigates their thermal properties (how they behave when heated and cooled). These are measured in a space furnace which heats samples of the intermetallics up to 1500 °C.
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