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Southampton students create STORM in space

A flight instrument designed and developed by research students at the University of Southampton is going into orbit on the space shuttle Atlantis, due to be launched today from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Southampton Transient Oxygen and Radiation Monitor (STORM) instrument is destined for the International Space Station where it will be used in an experiment called MEDET (Materials Exposure and Degradation Experiment on EuTEF). The experiment aims to measure how the hostile space environment affects materials used to construct spacecraft.

These materials, particularly polymers which are often used to form insulation blankets on spacecraft for example, suffer damage from the combined effects of solar radiation, micrometeroid and space debris impact, and from exposure to atomic oxygen, which is the primary constituent of the Earth's residual atmosphere in low Earth orbit. STORM will monitor the concentration of atomic oxygen (AO) and the flux of solar X-ray and ultra-violet radiation.

Once operational, STORM will send back data at regular intervals so that the changes in the AO and X-ray/UV levels can be monitored over time. After two or three years of exposure to the space environment, the experiment will be returned to Earth for analysis and interpretation by the Southampton researchers, who will determine the effect of the exposure on the materials and instruments contained on board.

Design work on the instrument, which is a cube measuring approximately 15 centimetres on each side with a mass of approximately 1 kilogram, began in 2001 with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

STORM was developed by staff from three School of Engineering Sciences research groups, including Professor Stephen Gabriel from Astronautics; Dr Graham Roberts from Aerodynamics and Flight Mechanics and Dr Alan Chambers from Engineering Materials, together with colleague Dr Neil Ross from the School of Electronics and Computer Science. Ken Lawson and Dr Jeff Rao of the School of Applied Sciences at Cranfield University were also involved in the fabrication of some of the sensors.

Most of the design and development work was carried out by two Engineering Sciences research students, Duncan Goulty and Carl White, both of whom have now been awarded their PhDs. Several undergraduate students also took part in the development of STORM by carrying out project work as part of their studies.

The MEDET experiment is part of an international project between the University of Southampton's Schools of Engineering Sciences and Electronics and Computer Science; the European Space Agency (ESA); the French Space Agency (CNES), and the French Aerospace Laboratory (ONERA).

Today's shuttle launch is due to take place at 7.45pm GMT (2.45 pm Eastern Standard Time), although it may be delayed until tomorrow Friday 8 February if bad weather moves in.

Sue Wilson | alfa
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