Wednesday, June 1, 2011

International Space Station Technology -- With Benefits for Fine Art

If art is in the eye of the beholder, then space aficionados may hail the International Space Station as a technological masterpiece. So it is an interesting coincidence that the research that went into developing the orbiting laboratory actually benefits fine art here on Earth. Paintings damaged by everything from lipstick to soot from a fire now have a safe method of restoration available, thanks to information originally intended for the building of the space station.

The journey to restoration began with early space research pointed at the eventual construction of the space station. This includes investigations such as Evaluation of Oxygen Interaction with Materials, or EOIM-III, conducted on the space shuttle as part of STS-46. This study looked at the material reactions to atomic oxygen, as well as vacuum ultraviolet radiation. The findings showed that atomic oxygen in low Earth orbit reacted with carbon containing materials.

Engineers built ground testing facilities based on results from atomic oxygen studies for the main goal of testing radiators, solar arrays, other external components in development for the space station. According to Sharon Miller with NASA's Space Environment and Experiments Branch at NASA's Glenn Research Center, the benefits beyond the intended space station goals were a surprise. "The uses of atomic oxygen for Earth applications were not planned. They are a result of knowledge gained by observing the effect of atomic oxygen on materials and discussions with knowledgeable individuals in the fields of art and medicine."

While atomic oxygen can be destructive in the space environment, on Earth it can delicately remove unwanted substances from items such as paintings by dissolving them over a period of time. Glenn Research Center houses a vacuum chamber that mixes oxygen and helium to create atomic oxygen. This chemical element does not naturally occur for long on Earth, but scientists have harnessed the ability to generate it using a concise pencil-beam machine. These resources enable the oxidation of debris to harmlessly reveal the paint underneath. Atomic oxygen also has sterilization benefits for medical tools, among other uses.

The need to study the space environment continues today on the space station in preparation for future exploration, building of new satellites for Earth orbit and continued use of the orbiting laboratory. One investigation in particular manages to enable multiple studies at once. The Materials International Space Station Experiment, or MISSE, continues the efforts started by predecessors like EOIM-III. This research allows scientists to determine the best materials for surviving the space environment.

Astronauts place the samples into a suitcase-like facility attached to the exterior of the space station. These test materials come from NASA centers, commercial companies, Department of Defense laboratories, and various partner agencies. MISSE-7 returned to Earth as part of the STS-134 mission on June 1, 2011. The study contained more than 700 different samples, selected for the long-duration space exposure. Researchers use the knowledge from the MISSE investigations to create models and tools for optimal spacecraft designs. This includes finding out which materials are most durable for specific mission goals.

The body of knowledge from space station research continues to build upon itself as NASA pursues future exploration missions. Miller points out the continued potential of such investigations. "The knowledge gained from the research being conducted on MISSE can lead to many more great discoveries, more knowledgeable selection of materials for future spacecraft and additional benefits to improve life here on Earth."

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