Alpha Space tells Jonathan Newell about a service that takes engineering experiments beyond the atmosphere for the ultimate in climatic testing.
Climatic tests for vacuum, solar flare and altitude resilience are usually performed using simulated environments but an affordable test facility rental service can now expose samples to the real rigours of space.
An orbiting commercial science facility has been permanently installed on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) to provide services to the space research, testing and materials science communities. The “MISSE” facility is owned and operated by Alpha Space and was recently launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-14 resupply mission.
MISSE has been designed to house test samples and other experiments to be exposed to the specific environment of space that the user specifies to Alpha Space. On the current mission, there are 229 individual samples from a mixture of commercial customers and NASA centres. Samples include 3-D printed materials, sensors, sensor components, textiles, polymers and composites.
According to Mark Gittleman, Alpha Space president and CEO, MISSE is very flexible in the kinds of tests and experiments that can be performed on it. It has four exposed faces, each of which provides slightly different testing environments. The primary environmental elements to which experiments are exposed include unfiltered sunlight, radiation, vacuum, orbital debris (micro meteorites) and highly corrosive monatomic oxygen as well as thermal cycling.
“Most materials are passive samples, but we can and do provide power and data for active experiments too. We collect experiment data on a continuous basis and tag it with ISS location, altitude and attitude data and provide it to our customers on an on-going basis throughout the on-orbit period, which are offered in six month increments,” he says.
Whilst Alpha Space plans to launch and return test samples approximately every six months, they also have the ability to provide extended exposure to the space environment, for years at a time if required.
Easy access to space
One of the most compelling aspects of the MISSE facility is the ease with which companies have access to space testing. By making the facility permanent, Alpha Space and NASA have dramatically reduced the cost and logistical difficulties of testing in space.
The facility offers commercial organisations, as well as NASA, a unique, in-space testing and exposure capability that is inexpensive, easy to get to and easy to use.
“Our customers simply deliver their samples or components to us and we take care of the rest. Soon their product is in orbit, and we’re delivering data back to them and, unlike most other flight tests, they get their samples back when their time on orbit is over,” continues Gittleman.
I asked him how engineers would approach the complex task of test definition and specification, to which he replied that there is very little that the customer needs to do.
“We offer a full, fixed price service that’s designed to make conducting experiments in space as simple as possible. We provide our customers with an Interface Definition Document (IDD) and work with them to ensure that their experiment fits within MISSE and is safe,” he explains.
Customers define what they want to learn and Alpha Space helps them figure out how best to accomplish their objectives.
“Our service includes all interfacing with NASA and the launch provider, all on-orbit operations, providing regular data on the experiment’s progress, return to earth and de-integration and return of their property at the end. Our optional services include as much help in designing the actual experiment as they might want,” concludes Gittleman.
Alpha Space is accepting samples for its next two flights, scheduled for November of this year and May of 2019.