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Making plastics in Galileo's shadow.

Making plastics in Galileo's shadow

Soon after the Jupiter-bound Galileo probe left its berth on Atlantis on Oct. 18, the shuttle's Polymer Morphology experiment began collecting data that now amount to 15 stories worth of stacked typewritten pages. Scientists at 3M Co.'s Space Research and Applications Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., aim to learn how weightlessness affects plastic materials.

"We hope this experiment will teach us more about the physical properties, such as strength and elasticity, of polymers," notes chemicst and principal investigator Debra L. Wilfong. "Knowledge gained could be used to improve how we make tapes and adhesives on earth." The experiment is the company's fifth space project and the first under a 10-year research agreement with NASA.

Since a polymer's physical properties depend on its underlying chemistry and how it is processed, the 3M researchers designed an experiment to eavesdrop on molecular changes occurring during the processing of polymers. Each of 17 sample cells held a disk-shaped film of either polyethlene, nylon-6, or a polymer blend. Each sample in turn was heated and allowed to cool while an infrared spectrometer took a snapshot of infrared emissions about every 3 seconds. Chemists use such data to infer the types of chemical bonds in samples. By examining the sequences of snapshots, the scientists hope to view a veritable motion picture of polymerization and crystallization processes in space. Earlier materials processing projects in space lacked consistent surveillance of real-time molecular changes.

The scientists will now compare the space-processed plastics with lab samples processed in the normal gravity conditions of St. Paul.
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Title Annotation:polymer morphology experiments
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 28, 1989
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