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From wielding a sledgehammer to designing a device called an “entrapulator,” UCF scientists have played a key role in an experiment launching Tuesday from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station.

The experiment called Strata-1, led by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is flying aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft slated for an 11:05 p.m. liftoff atop an Atlas V rocket.

The 19-story rocket and spacecraft are expected to roll to their Launch Complex 41 pad around 10 a.m. Monday.

Strata-1 hopes to answer questions about how regolith, or space dirt, behaves on the surface of asteroids that robotic and possibly human explorers will visit in the coming years.

“We’re super-excited,” said Adrienne Dove, an assistant professor in UCF’s physics department. “Experiments like this are really great for preparing for future human exploration.”

Thanks to Apollo missions, regolith on large bodies like the moon is fairly well understood. But that’s not the case on smaller bodies without atmospheres, like asteroids, that have less gravitational pull.

Will the outsides of asteroids be neatly sorted layers of similar particles, or a jumble of shapes and compositions all mushed together? If a spacecraft tries to latch on, will it sink into the material or scatter it? Will any samples collected be representative of the larger object's composition, or just the top layer?

“We don’t really know much at all yet about how this (material) actually behaves,” said Dove.

Later this year, NASA will launch the OSIRIS-REx mission to collect a sample from an asteroid for return to Earth.

The space agency also has proposed sending a robotic spacecraft to pry a boulder from an asteroid that would be towed back to an orbit near the moon, where astronauts could visit in an Orion capsule launched from Kennedy Space Center.

It would be helpful if the missions had a better idea of what they’ll encounter when they arrive at those destinations.

To provide some clues, Strata-1 will use the microgravity environment on the space station 250 miles up to watch how different materials move and sort themselves over a year.

Without the ISS, researchers would be limited to seconds of microgravity available on parabolic aircraft flights, or perhaps minutes on suborbital spacecraft still in development. UCF’s own Center for Microgravity Research has a drop tower that offers a fraction of a second of weightlessness.

UCF provided the hardware for the experiment, modifying equipment built earlier for a parabolic flight. It includes four clear vacuum tubes, each 8 inches long and 2.5 inches in diameter.

The tubes’ contents range from spherical glass beads, which represent a control group that's easy to model, to simulated regolith to meteorite fragments.

“It’s an actual meteorite that we had in one big chunk here at UCF, and then we broke it apart with a sledgehammer,” said Dove.

“I’d like to say that no meteorites were harmed in the making of this experiment,” added NASA’s Marc Fries, the experiment’s lead scientist, “but no, we beat it with a hammer pretty well.”

During launch and the eventual return to Earth, each particle sample will held in place by a device that UCF designed and has dubbed an “entrapulator.”

On the station, the devices will retract to release the materials, whose movement cameras record periodically over a year. The images will be, stored on cards eventually returned to Earth on a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

The entire experiment was put together in just 10 months, an unusually short timeframe, and included participation by at least a half-dozen undergraduate students.

“It was a great effort from our team to get it done, so we’re all very looking forward to the launch,” said Dove.

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Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 orjdean@floridatoday.com. And follow on Twitter at@flatoday_jdeanand on Facebook atfacebook.com/jamesdeanspace.

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