Science in Space

     A space furnace like the one below heats samples of the intermetallics while they are on board the rocket. At around 1600 °C titanium aluminide melts. As the molten sample cools, it turns solid again. Deeper understanding of how titanium aluminide behaves during this process will lead to improved techniques for casting it in moulds.

    A second experiment explores the materials’ surface tensions (how likely they are to form droplets) and viscosities (how easily the materials flow). These are measured using an ‘electromagnetic levitator’ or EML.


    Tests are also conducted during ‘parabolic’ flights. These flights provide shorter periods of microgravity, but allow scientists to carry out tests first-hand.

    The experiments are conducted on board a specially equipped Airbus A300. The aircraft is flown on a parabolic flight path. It climbs rapidly, then dives steeply. Microgravity begins when the aircraft is part way through its climb, continuing as it dives. The pilot pulls the aircraft out of its dive to begin another arc. Each arc provides around 20 seconds of microgravity and 31 arcs are flown in each flight.


    Longer-term experiments and those that need human involvement will soon be carried out on board the International Space Station in the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory. This space laboratory, launched in 2008, is likely to be in use for around ten years. It will provide an environment of constant microgravity, allowing astronauts to carry out much more extensive research.

    The ambitious project involves scientists with many different skills from over 15 countries. They range from materials scientists and metallurgists to rocket experts and astronauts. Their goal is to develop new materials.