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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2003

Space shuttle's Cleveland data not totally lost

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

Dr. Marco Cabrera lost all of his data when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry a week ago.

But the researcher at Case Western Reserve University said he wouldn't want to put it that way. His data was secreted in the cells of the seven astronauts who lost their lives.

“We lost seven people who were to be tested,'' Dr. Cabrera said. “But I don't like to mention that.''

Ohio played a role in a number of experiments on the Columbia. For most researchers, at least some data were retrieved.

Dr. Cabrera's studies would have compared astronaut muscle samples taken post-flight, to pre-flight biopsies. His work focuses on the toll weightlessness takes on the human body.

“Just to maintain their condition, the astronauts would have to exercise 2 1/2 hours a day,'' Dr. Cabrera said. Without the pull of gravity, muscle changes the way it uses energy.

In fact, it appears from previous astronaut biopsies, that the slow-twitch muscle needed for endurance feats changes to fast-twitch muscle required for quick sprints after prolonged weightlessness.

Dr. Gerard Faeth of the University of Michigan needed only numbers to keep his research efforts burning.

The National Air and Space Administration's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland administered his experiment. He studies how flames create soot.

“My experiment was run relatively early in the mission,'' Dr. Faeth said. “But we were having trouble downlinking data from shuttle to Earth. We had to decide whether to wait for the data, and go ahead with the test program, or send the data and delay the test program. We felt the data on the shuttle was as good as in our pocket,'' he said. So they kept testing.

He still retrieved between a half and two-thirds of his results.

“Given information about how soot forms, we can come up with ways to prevent it. Of all the pollutants, soot is responsible for the greatest number of fatalities,'' Dr. Faeth said. Soot causes some 60,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. The particles play a role in asthma and lung disease.

Flames studied in normal gravity led researchers to the wrong conclusions about soot formation, Dr. Faeth said.

“Microgravity is a better place to see it,'' he said. “The things you conclude in gravity are dead wrong.''

It turns out that soot buildup is heaviest in the part of a flame with the lowest oxygen content.

The combustion chamber built in Cleveland was also where Dr. Paul Ronney of the University of Southern California created the fat balls of flame possible only in zero gravity.

"About 50 percent of our data was downlinked," Dr. Ronney said. "Mainly we lost the videotapes, but we did have some downlinked video during the mission."

The flight produced the weakest flames ever created in space or on the ground, generating about a half a watt of thermal power. A birthday candle creates 50 watts.

It also created the leanest flame ever, and the longest-lived flame ever created in space. One spaceball floated for 81 minutes before it was extinguished.

“On the last mission, they lasted 9 minutes,'' said Anne P. Over, NASA Glenn project manager of the combustion module.

J. Thomas McKinnon, of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, also retrieved about half the data from his fire suppression experiments. Dr. McKinnon was gathering information on a misting system for fire suppression. This research was also administered in Cleveland.

“It all worked really well,'' Dr. McKinnon said.

Mist systems could replace Halon in firefighting. Halon was banned because of its ozone-damaging properties.

“People are making these misting systems, but they don't know how to best design them,'' Ms. Over said. “What size water droplet is best? What's the best spray rate? There's no modeling out there.'' she said.

Zero gravity makes it possible to learn more about how the mist system behaves.

“In gravity, you spray out your mist, and in seconds it falls. In microgravity, the water mists out, and distributes nearly perfectly. And it never falls. So you have this nice distribution of water mist, perfect for mathematical equations,'' Ms. Over said.



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