Utah Valley Community College has entered the Space Age with a thrust that could send it into hyperdrive.
A grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration arrived at the college in the form of a hypervelocity accelerator and $40,000, which will be used to test the durability of NASA's future space station."The new space station, that NASA will construct in space sometime in the next decade, will face a new kind of threat. That threat is erosion to the station by the debris left in space by man himself," said Thomas Lee, project director and instructor of astronomy at the college.
The hypervelocity accelerator is a laser gun that emits tiny particles instead of light rays. The accelerator will be used to simulate conditions in space, allowing certain materials to be tested for durability.
"As longer missions in space are anticipated, there is concern for the greater surface erosion of windows, solar cells and antennas of space vehicles caused by space debris particles," Lee said. "Although the danger from the single impact from a dust particle is minimal, it is the cumulative damage to windows, antennae and solar cells over the 15 year lifetime of the space station that is the concern to NASA scientists."
Lee, a former NASA scientist, studied the threat to spacecraft by impact of natural meteoroids. While at NASA, he developed a laboratory that was able to simulate the threat of meteors. All external surfaces of the Apollo spacecraft - and the space suits - were tested and qualified.
"The threat posed by natural meteoroids was overcome, and mankind is now relatively safe from the tiny rocks that are part of the space environment," Lee said. "Our next challenge is to refine the process allowing us to test the effects of even smaller space particles."
The hypervelocity accelerator currently launches particles at a velocity of 7 kilometers per second. "We have discovered that this is not enough velocity to replicate actual space conditions. A velocity of 11 kilometers per second would more realistically represent true conditions," Lee said.
Lee is currently modifying the launcher to become a hypervelocity drag accelerator to allow him greater accuracy in his experiments.