Two open suitcases, their contents exposed to the elements, clung to the outside of the International Space Station. Radiation bombarded them. Particles struck. After losing their ride home, the suitcases orbited 2 1/2 years longer than expected. Scientists and Montana State University students wondered what they'd find when the suitcases finally returned to Earth.
They won't have to wait much longer, said Donna Minton, deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium. After 47 months in space, the suitcases and materials inside landed Tuesday, Aug. 9, in California. Three MSU students had already been preparing for their arrival.
Barrett Sakow, a chemistry major from Bozeman, Tanner Horne, a physics major from Elliston, and Curtis Small, a biochemistry major from Butte, are involved in a project to see how the materials survived the space environment. Those that performed well could wind up on the outside of future spacecrafts, Minton said. The students won summer internships with the Montana Space Grant Consortium to use MSU's Image and Chemical Analysis Lab to study some of the space-exposed materials. They'll also compare materials eroded at MSU with samples eroded in space.
"This is a very unique and exciting opportunity," Minton said. "The International Space Station has proven to be an important test bed for the durability of spacecraft materials in the low-Earth orbit environment."
In 2001, researchers with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent up approximately 400 materials inside two containers that looked like suitcases, Minton said. Attached to the outside of the International Space Station, the containers and materials stayed in space much longer than expected after the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded and NASA stopped sending shuttles into space.
Scientists started gearing up for the return of their luggage, though, when NASA announced plans to resume the flights, Minton said. The "suitcases" returned to Earth on the shuttle. MSU's involvement in the project is a collaboration with NASA and Boeing. The summer internships are funded through a NASA grant.
"It's amazing. So far, it has been very exciting," said Horne who was already working in the Image and Chemical Analysis Lab when he decided to apply for the summer internship.
Small said he was involved in "space stuff" as a kid, so when the internship became available, "It was kind of like, ‛Wow. I can do a research project doing something I enjoyed as a kid.'"
Sakow said she was interested in forensic science when she enrolled at MSU, but changed her focus after Minton spoke to one of her classes.
"It sounded incredibly exciting," Sakow said of the space project. "The way she described it was completely engaging. I didn't think I had much of a chance, but I applied for it and got the opportunity."
Sakow, Horne and Small received an overview of the project when they visited NASA and Boeing personnel at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in early June, Minton said. And although they're summer interns, they'll be able to continue their projects into the fall. Now that the shuttle has landed, they'll have the opportunity to travel to NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to help remove samples from the experiment trays. They will then bring some of the materials back to Bozeman for analysis.
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org