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MIC researchers escape gravity

Three researchers from IPRT's Microanalytical Instrumentation Center escaped gravity in 25 second intervals to test their latest innovation. Marc Porter, MIC director, Matteo Arena, visiting scientist, and Duane Weisshaar, visiting professor, recently flew on NASA's KC-135 reduced-gravity aircraft to test a new system for determining levels of treatment chemicals in water. It's part of an effort to develop novel instrumentation for monitoring the quality of spacecraft drinking water.

"The test flight showed that what we did on the ground works in space," said Porter, who also is an ISU chemistry professor. He added that the flights help researchers better understand the demands of working in zero gravity. The team members also battled the motion sickness that commonly occurs with flyers on the KC-135.

James Fritz, an ISU distinguished professor emeritus of chemistry, as well as scientists from NASA Johnson Space Center and Wyle Laboratories, the NASA contractor for water quality projects, are also on the research team. The three-year project is funded by a grant of over $300,000 a year from NASA.

The system tested on the KC-135 "Weightless Wonder" was designed to sense chemicals used in treating water to make it fit for human consumption. The instrument is essentially a small analysis system that can detect levels of iodine or silver two chemicals used to treat water in spacecraft. This first test showed that the basic technology works in zero gravity. The next step, said Porter, is to automate the entire system. The researchers hope to design and build a prototype of such a system and test it on a KC-135 flight within a year.

NASA's KC-135 is a four-engine turbojet used to fly a series of parabolic arcs to investigate the effects of zero gravity. The MIC's test flights lasted approximately two hours, traversing some 40 parabolas that each produced about 25 seconds of near zero-gravity environment.

This research is important as spacecraft designers look to recycle a higher percentage of water to meet the demands of longer flights. Indeed, they are working toward the day when all waste streams will be recycled to make potable water. Moreover, such rugged, reliable, miniaturized instrumentation has earth-bound applications in environmental monitoring and other areas. "There's a huge overlap between space and earth-based needs," Porter said.

The effort is applicable to today's shuttle missions and the International Space Station as well as future voyages. "For missions to Mars and for space colonies, there's going to be a huge demand for water," said Porter. These human missions need reliable, easy-to-use methods for monitoring and controlling storage and distribution systems for drinking water.

The main goal of the research is to develop lightweight, miniaturized systems that solve a number of the problems associated with monitoring and controlling water quality on manned spacecraft. In addition to simplicity, the methods need to be automated and reliable to ease the workload of flight crews. Minimal size and weight are important as sensor systems and ancillary hardware compete for critical room. And, as in all spacecraft systems, low power consumption is essential. "Key to meeting these requirements is miniaturization," Porter said.

This project is one of only 14 projects awarded grants under a NASA effort to advance human support technologies. Porter said ISU received its grant in part because of its expertise in diverse areas such as analytical chemistry, electrochemical sensing and microelectronics.

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by Robert Mills

 

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