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Micro-g earth lab for space studies.

The idea of using the near-weightless or microgravity environment of space to produce new materials such as new alloys and ultrapure crystals has been around for years. If it has not exactly proceeded by leaps and bounds, some of the reasons have been the limited opportunities and high costs of space flight. In the last three years, however, the Reagan administration has sought to encourage more private-sector involvement in space, a task that includes finding ways to involve corporations and universities that heretofore may not have been active in space research.

With this in mind, NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland last week opened a new Microgravity Materials Science Laboratory (MMSL) designed specifically "to help experimenters make better decisions about what is and is not feasible for science experiments in space." In short, says Salvatore J. Grisaffe, chief of Lewis's Materials Division, "it is dedicated to helping industry and university people take the first step toward space."

It can be pretty inhibiting, Grisaffe notes, if an organization just starting to contemplate an idea for future space study, but without experience in such matters, find that it may need something like a $200,000 furnace to design an experiment. Thus the MMSL offers potential experiment designers furnaces, acoustic and electromagnetic levitation equipment and other devices, sometimes including "functional duplicates" of equipment that would actually be used if such a study were conducted on the shuttle.

Such gear would be for use in experiment development on the ground, not in space, and NASA Lewis has not developed an antigravity machine. It does, however, offer a pair of 500- and 100-foot "drop towers," each providing a few seconds of weightlessness, as well as a Lear Jet that can achieve the same result by flying over the top of a parabolic arc. Even those short periods, says Grisaffe, can be valuable in preliminary studies of flowing liquids or the cooling of melted solid droplets. The MMSL also would be providing consultation, as well as computing facilities that include a Cray supercomputer.

One of Grisaffe's hopes is that the combination of the MMSL and spaceborne experiments will lead to a set of "benchmark materials"--carefully measured samples taht will document the best that can be accomplished in space, versus on the ground, in various characteristics such as crystal structure and magnetic properties. It is even possible, he suggests, that detailed computer modeling of the behavior of materials produced in space may someday make it possible to achieve their desired properties by ground-based manufacturing, without the expense of going into space at all. And to further encourage private-sector interest, the "catalog" describing the new facility offers potential users first rights (subject to a royalty-free license to NASA) to any inventions that may result.
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Title Annotation:Microgravity Materials Science Laboratory
Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 14, 1985
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