Low Gravity Sciences

USRA Collaborations make key contributions in the areas of Operations Management, Materials, Combustion, Fluid Physics, Complex Fluids, and Communications. These areas of research are integral to the future of the exploration and commercialization of space.

Current Highlights
image of Starlab George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park

Managing The Starlab Terrestrial And Space-Based George Washington Carver Science Park

USRA has been selected by Nanoracks and Voyager Space --along with ZIN Technologies, The Ohio State University, and the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation--to join the founding leadership team in charge of supporting the development and operations of the Starlab George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park. The GWC Science Park will leverage a successful terrestrial business model where scientists and industry experts share findings, collaborate, and use new technologies to advance both scientific and commercial endeavors. This effort compliments Nanoracks’ long history in supporting universities, start-up companies, non-profits, and other organizations’ research on the ISS. The GWC Science Park goals will be accomplished within its four main operational components, which will include a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area.

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The roles of each initial member are as follows:

USRA – Cleveland, OH: USRA is a trusted NASA research partner and fields among the largest collections of space-specialized principal investigators. USRA will manage the GWC and drive use within its existing network.

ZIN Technologies (ZIN) – Middleburg Heights, OH: ZIN is a leader in providing advanced engineering solutions and product development for NASA, DOD, and private industry. Since 2001, ZIN has lead design, development, and operations of biological and physical science facilities and instruments on the ISS. ZIN will develop the customer research and lab hardware production in collaboration with Nanoracks.

The Ohio State University (Ohio State) – Columbus, OH: Ohio State will lead university business and research development efforts and drive academic and agricultural technology (AgTech) activities, through the College of Engineering and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Ohio State will also develop a ground-analog laboratory for terrestrial control missions in 1-G (Earth gravity) while paralleling space science activities and serving as a training facility for Principal Investigators to accustom themselves to the space research environment.

The International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (IASP) – Málaga, Spain: IASP is an organization of over 300 science and technology parks that links over 115,000 tech-based companies and research partners with representation on every continent. IASP will coordinate Starlab’s global outreach efforts to the science community. Nanoracks’ existing commercial research lab on the International Space Station is the first IASP member laboratory in space.

To maintain an uninterrupted U.S. presence in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) by transitioning from the International Space Station to commercial platforms, NASA signed an agreement with Nanoracks and their partners at Voyager Space. This agreement helps enable Nanoracks to begin designing its Starlab commercial space station as part of NASA’s Commercial LEO Development program. The GWC Science Park, established by Nanoracks, is the world’s first-ever science park in space, active today on the International Space Station, and will be the core science element of Starlab once it achieves initial operational capability in 2027.

image of low gravity researchers

USRA Continues To Make Key Contributions To Low Gravity Research At NASA Glenn Research Center

USRA, along with its partners at NASA, HX5 and Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), continues to make key contributions to low gravity research at NASA GRC, on the Glenn Engineering and Research Support (GEARS) contract. 

The Low Gravity Research Team on GEARS continues to achieve mission success on numerous flight experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) and other suborbital platforms while also supporting ground-based R&D that is often the precursor of future ISS flight experiments. The following are a few recent highlights of the many scientific and technical accomplishments made by the team.

image of cool flame investigation

Cool Flames in Space

In September 2017, the Multi-User Droplet Combustion Apparatus (MDCA) culminated 8 1/2 years of operations in the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) onboard the ISS with the completion of the final in-space operations of the Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX) series of investigations.

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USRA played an integral role in the operation and analysis of the FLEX experiments. FLEX led to a 2012 ISS Research Discovery of the Year with the detection of a new “cool flame” mode of non-premixed combustion observed during the second stage burning of an alkane droplet; and was named among the top 20 Breakthroughs from 20 Years of ISS Research in 2020. This discovery paved the way for the Cool Flames Investigation experiment and has significantly improved models of low-temperature chemical kinetics.

Following the culmination of the FLEX experiments, USRA and its collaborators have further explored the area of cool flame combustion through the development of drop tower experiments to examine cool flame behavior in high pressure environments for various fuels. The drop tower experiments give 5 seconds of microgravity and have investigated cool flame propagation towards the droplet and ignition delay times for various fuels. The data from FLEX and drop-tower experiments will lead to better fuel efficiency and improved fire safety for applications on Earth and in space.

image of hexagonal array

Fluid Physics and Complex Fluids

Advanced Colloids Experiments (ACE) Growing Large Single Defect Free Colloidal Crystals in Space

USRA’s Dr. William Meyer (USRA) is the Project Scientist for the Advanced Colloids Experiments (ACE) family of investigations that were flown on the ISS over the last decade.  When removing the sedimentation and gravitational jamming seen on Earth, these experiments can use a 3D microscope to capture images that bridge the understanding of colloidal particle behaviors and colloidal engineering.

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Recent experiments include ACE-T11, ACE Temperature Control -12-2 (ACE T-12-2) [Nanoparticle Haloing], ACE Temperature Control -11 (ACE-T11) [Hard spheres], ACE Temperature Control-Ellipsoids (ACE-TR [Ellipsoids]), ACE Temperature 4-1 (ACE T4-1), ACE Temperature 4-2 (ACE T4-2), ACE Temperature control (ACE-T-2-3 ), ACE Temperature control (ACE T1), and ACE Advanced Imaging, Folding, and Assembly of Colloidal Molecules (ACE-T9-3).

As a result of the ACE-T11 flight experiment, USRA and partners Nanoracks, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and New York University filed a provisional patent (#63365667) for growing large single defect free colloidal crystals in space.  The invention relates to the fabrication of large three‐dimensional Bragg gratings operating at infrared wavelengths. Due to the unique properties of these Bragg gratings, these photonic crystals are expected to be crucial for applications in remote sensing, fiber‐optic communication, materials processing, chemical analysis, biomedical diagnostics, optical computing, security and defense.


Cool Technology Ensures Space Missions Don’t Run out of “Gas”

Cryogenic propellants are fluids chilled to extremely cold temperatures and condensed to form liquids. Fluids such as liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen and liquid methane at their ideal operating temperatures can be used to provide high-energy propulsion solutions critical to present and future human missions.  Propellant quantity gauging is also critical for space vehicles, yet becomes challenging in low-gravity environments.  These difficulties are overcome with the low-gravity propellant gauging technology, Radio Frequency Mass Gauge (RFMG), which was developed at NASA Glenn. The RFMG technology measures the electromagnetic eigenmodes, or natural resonant frequencies, of a tank containing a cryogenic fluid.  This information is passed to a pattern-matching algorithm, which compares the measured eigenmode frequencies with a database of simulations at various fill levels. The gauged fill level is the best match between the simulated and measured frequency.

USRA is actively supporting NASA Glenn in applying RFMG to various space missions, including support to several commercial entities for both the NASA Human Landing System and the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CPLS) programs, which will carry the next two American astronauts, and deliver science and technology to the lunar surface, respectively.  Support was also provided to industry as part of NASA’s Tipping Point program, which will help mature cryogenic fluid management technologies via in-space demonstrations.

image of combustion science research aboard ISS

Combustion Science

Lighting the Way to a Deeper Understanding of Fire in Space and on Earth

The Solid Fuel Ignition and Extinction (SoFIE) project is a set of experiments launched aboard Northrop Grumman’s 17th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station February, 2022. SoFIE, which will run in the station’s Combustion Integrated Rack, promises to light the way to a deeper understanding of fire in space. According to USRA’s Dr. Paul Ferkul (SoFIE Project Scientist), “With NASA planning outposts on other planetary bodies like the Moon and Mars, we need to be able to live there with minimal risk. Understanding how flames spread and how materials burn in different environments is crucial for the safety of future explorers.” SoFIE consists of five investigations to study the flammability of plexiglass, cotton-based fabrics, and other materials commonly used in spaceflight.

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The results of SoFIE will aid NASA and other commercial entities to select materials and designs for spacesuits, cabins, and habitats. The experiments also will help identify the best ways to put out fires or smoldering materials in space as we prepare to go farther and stay longer.   "On Earth, gravity has a profound influence on flames. In lower gravity environments, fire can behave unexpectedly and could be more hazardous,” Ferkul said.

SoFIE’s main purpose is to study spacecraft fire safety.  However, data from the experiments could help improve fire safety on Earth by adding to the existing body of knowledge that could improve screening tests to evaluate fire-safe materials for everyday applications.


Hardware Failure Enables Discoveries Related to Burning on Saffire V

Several USRA scientists along with their NASA collaborators contributed to the success of the Spacecraft Fire Safety (Saffire) V experiments that continued to investigate how fires grow and spread in space.  Just as in Saffires I, II, III and IV, the Saffire-V experiments were ignited in a NG-14 Cygnus cargo vehicle after it had completed its primary ISS supply mission, departed the station, and before its planned destructive reentry to Earth.   

An unintended igniter circuit failure led to what may be the most enlightening of all the Saffire project experiments to date. The failure fortuitously left a pristine sample that showed flame spread propagating toward the air flow. This surprising result is contrary to results on Earth and provided valuable information on local flame spread rate.

Understanding how fire behaves in microgravity, and how different materials propagate flames in space is immensely important for the development of future crewed spacecraft.

image of aerosol research laboratory at Glenn Research Center


USRA is supporting NASA GRC with research on planetary and spacecraft dust properties and mitigation technologies.  The GRC activities supporting NASA’s life support systems project are centered on airborne particulate matter, also known as aerosols, which include both cabin nuisance dust (common pollutant particles in the spacecraft cabin) and planetary dust (external dust that enters the habitable spaces from extra-vehicular activities). The ISS is a unique environment that...

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...serves as both home and workplace for the astronauts. It has an excellent filtration system leading to very clean ISS cabin environments. In recent studies, some of the used HEPA filters known as Bacterial Filter Elements (BFE) have been returned to the ground and evaluated in the Particle Filtration Laboratory at GRC where they were found to still offer good filtration performance. This is mostly due to the protective screens on the front face of the filters that capture a mostly lint-like layer of dust from internally generated sources of particulate matter (PM), letting through only the smallest particles onto the HEPA filters. However, it takes work by the crew to maintain the HEPA filters onboard the ISS. Particularly, the screens require manually cleaning on a weekly basis using a vacuum cleaner. Methods to reduce maintenance on these filters will be significantly save on crew time and logistics resources. To that end, a novel filter system coined the Scroll Filter System is being developed at GRC that will automate the maintenance of the HEPA filters by mechanically automating the change out of filter media or screen material. It also provides an additional method of particle separation to aid in the filtration process.

image of Lightweight Thrust Chamber Assemblies


Materials research stretches across several areas in support of GEARS including:

1) Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS)-Dynamic Radioisotope Power Systems (DRPS) Dynamic Power Conversion (DPC) technology development project for new generation DPC convertor development.

2) Transformational Tools and Technology (TTT)-Electric Aircraft Propulsion (EAP) Advanced multifunctional materials project to improve/optimize, scale up, and commercialize the newly invented high voltage, lightweight micro-multilayer multifunctional electrical insulation (MMEI) system (U.S. Pat. No. 10,546,666). Support includes development and modification of new and current materials for power cable improvements where different boron nitride types with different particle sizes are exfoliated using chemical reaction method.

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3) Advanced Air Transport Technologies (AATT)- Electrified Aircraft PowerTrain (EAPT) Electric machine insulation project focused on improving potting qualities of Litz wires for better thermal management and structural integrity of the stator winding of high efficiency and high power density electric motors for the future electrified aircraft applications. This includes an extrusion of different flexible polymer composites to study their properties applicable for wire coating, slot liners and high voltage separators.

4) Convergent Aeronautics Solution (CAS) executive project to develop novel polymer electrolytes and cathodes for batteries for Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and all electric aero-vehicles.

5) Rapid Analysis and Manufacturing Propulsion Technology (RAMPT) studying composite overwrap for additively manufactured metallic thrust chambers as well as obtaining boundary and shear data from composite overwrapped tubes.

6) Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology (RVLT) evaluating carbon fiber/epoxy composite panels which incorporate a pitch-based fiber to assess thermal conductivity and damage tolerance.

7) Thermoplastic Development for Exploration Applications (TDEA) / Hi-Rate Composite Aircraft Manufacturing (HiCAM) evaluating process and property relationships for thermoplastic matrix composites.

8) Aerogels including cross-linked polymer / organic aerogels, and ceramic aerogels, which have multiple aerospace applications because of their low density, high porosity, high surface area, low thermal conductivity, and low dielectric constant.

USRA also serves as lead for multiple materials laboratories.

image of a flexible polymer membrane incorporating nanoparticles of PAF

Optimizing Polyimide Aerogels for Aircraft Conformal Antennas

The research team, including USRA Scientists, is designing flexible polymer materials that can be used for lightweight, low-drag antennas that conform along the surface of an aircraft.

The pursuit to design lightweight aircraft that can travel over greater distances is of particular interest for unmanned aircraft. One area for improvement is the antenna, which can be heavy and bulky, and extend far above the surface of the vehicle, creating added drag.  A phased array antenna, installed conformally along the curved surface of a wing or fuselage, is an attractive alternative. However, a flexible, lightweight substrate material is needed that will conform to the shape of the aircraft, while providing a low dielectric constant and low loss.   The team developed optimized flexible polyimide aerogel substrates with 2mm thickness for just this purpose; and showed the resulting materials have both the mechanical and electrical properties that are needed to manufacture lightweight, high-performing conformal antennas for more efficient unmanned aircraft.

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