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On March 22, NASA is sending five experiments to the International Space Station to test how certain elements are affected by the unique conditions of outer space, namely, microgravity.

Microgravity is the term used to refer to the condition of weightlessness, and as evidenced by all those videos of astronauts floating around, it can physically affect elements in unexpected ways in comparison to earth.

This is where astrophysics and UCF’s team of professors and undergraduate research assistants who work at UCF's Center for Microgravity Research come in.

One of the five experiments, Strata-1, is the direct creation of a team of UCF professors and undergraduate students that was built in 10 months and cost several tens of thousands of dollars, which was partially funded by Space Florida.

Strata-1 will investigate how microgravity affects the movement of the layer of dust and soil that covers rocks, asteroids and even the moon, also known by scientists as regolith.

Joshua Colwell, a UCF physics professor who led the UCF effort, conceded that although the Strata-1 experiment itself sounds dull, its results will have significant implications for future missions to nearby asteroids, Mars and other planets.

“Compared to some of the other experiments, this time around ours doesn’t sound incredibly sexy,” Colwell said in a press release. “But it is important especially as we get ready to send spacecraft and people to asteroids and, eventually, Mars.”

The way the Strata-1 experiment works is quite simple. It’s composed of tubes packed with regolith and soil simulants with different compositions and sizes, which will all be observed during the course of a year.

What interests the UCF scientists is how the soil might move around inside the tube due to the normal vibrations of the space station and how it sorts itself out in a long-term, microgravity environment.

“It’s pretty cool that we’re able to do this experiment right now,” said Adrienne Dove, a UCF physics professor. “A lot of the future explorations that NASA and even private companies are looking at right now is exploring surfaces of asteroids.”

Dove explained that the results of the Strata-1 experiment will benefit NASA and the aforementioned companies because some are considering the practice of mining asteroids for resources in the future. However, such an endeavor becomes problematic if the companies don’t have enough knowledge about asteroids’ surfaces and how they might behave when you disturb it.

The Strata-1 experiment also goes beyond just studying regolith for the purposes of future mining explorations. It has valuable implications for safety reasons, particularly for future manned missions.

NASA scientists need to know what happens when flying dust and debris hits an astronaut’s spacesuit and whether it bounces off or damages anything. Merrit Robbins, a senior electrical engineering major and an undergraduate research assistant for UCF’s CMR who helped with the electrical design and mechanical manufacturing of the Strata-1 experiment, said the experiment will certainly be useful for ensuring the safety of future astronauts.

“This is to study any type of satellite we put into orbit or space probe we send on a mission to Mars, for example, because anywhere you go in the solar system, really anywhere you go in the universe, in general, there’s going to be stuff floating around,” Robins said. “And we want to know when we start putting, specifically humans, up in these space crafts what, exactly, the dust is going to do because NASA, being NASA, […] tries to simulate and predict everything.”

The Strata-1 experiment is scheduled to launch on March 22 by Orbital ATK, Inc., NASA’s commercial partner, in the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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Gabby Baquero is the Entertainment Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @Gabby_Baquero or email her at MariaB@centralfloridafuture.com.

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