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NASA, Lehigh to share research and lab facilities

Lehigh and NASA have signed a joint research agreement that gives researchers from the space agency access to the university’s cutting-edge nanotechnology and electron microscopy facilities.

The collaboration will help NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Maryland develop technologies for the James Webb Space Telescope and for future Mars rovers and spacecraft. The Webb telescope is scheduled to replace the Hubble Space Telescope in 2011.

“Lehigh faculty have a long record of productive partnerships with major research organizations,” says David Williams, vice provost for research at Lehigh. “This joint contract with NASA will create new opportunities for Lehigh's outstanding nanotechnology researchers to help solve critical materials problems for current and future space flights.”

NASA officials say the world-class facilities in Lehigh’s Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology allow the space agency to expand its capabilities without building or acquiring facilities.

The collaboration is the second in recent months between Lehigh and NASA. Last spring, Lehigh undergraduates became the first college students to examine pieces of debris from the failed Columbia space shuttle.

The James Webb Space Telescope will contain a Near Infrared Spectrograph with an array of microshutters acting as aperture. The spectrograph will study galaxy and star formation, chemical abundances and more.

Lehigh’s Nano- and Micro-Mechanical Behavior Laboratory (NMBL), which NASA will use, has unique tools for studying the properties and mechanics of thin films. These include a tool for sputter deposition of metal alloy films of arbitrary composition and several instruments that can characterize the mechanical behavior of nanometer-thick metal films over a wide range of temperatures and with unparalleled resolution.

“The behavior of thin films under these conditions is a virtually untapped area of research,” says GSFC engineer Michael Beamesderfer. “This research collaboration will provide us with a very useful understanding of the thin film materials used in the microshutters and will also begin to build a foundation for materials selection for future missions.”

NASA researchers also will use NMBL to test miniature low-leakage valves for use in mass spectrometers and other science instruments.

“Mass spectrometers could be used on a rover to understand the chemistry of Mars, such as whether the methane that’s been observed is biogenic,” says GSFC engineer Brian Jamieson. “Working with Lehigh will help us to improve the valve interface to ensure that the seals are effective after repeatedly opening and closing.”

Providing remote access to cutting-edge equipment

Under the agreement, NASA scientists will use one of Lehigh’s two new aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopes. Lehigh has the most extensive collection of electron microscopes of any U.S. university and is the only university in the U.S. with two aberration-corrected TEMs, which can determine the chemical identity of individual atoms.

The aberration-corrected JEOL 2200FS TEM, which NASA will use, has an image resolution of 0.1 nm, which is equivalent to about half the width of an atom.

Internet 2 and special software developed by JEOL enable scientists at remote sites to operate the microscope – and view specimens – at their computers.

Goddard lead nanotechnology researcher Dan Powell plans to establish an operation interface to gain access to Lehigh’s instrument from GSFC facilities in Greenbelt, Md. The ability for off-site study of micro- and nano-scale structures should demonstrate the potential for space-based remote microscopy, he says.

“This kind of real-time remote access to cutting-edge equipment is great for NASA,” Powell says. “Not only does it minimize our infrastructure costs, which is a benefit to the taxpayer, but it also allows us to establish an ongoing relationship that will continue to benefit NASA well into the future.”

The new partnership also gives Lehigh students and faculty the chance to conduct real-world research with NASA.

Richard Vinci, associate professor of materials science and engineering and director of NMBL, says the collaboration will help advance understanding of the behavior of aluminum thin films, measuring only nanometers in thickness, that are exposed to harsh temperature conditions in space (30K or –406 F).

“The benefits of this collaboration to the Lehigh NMBL are threefold,” says Vinci. “We will have the opportunity to work on devices that are technologically important, we will gain the ability to test thin films in torsion through collaborative use of NASA’s facilities, and we will have a strong justification for further developing cryogenic thin-film testing capability in our own laboratory. Torsional, temperature-dependent fatigue behavior in metal thin films is currently an unstudied area, and little is known about any thin-film mechanical behavior at the extremely low temperatures relevant to NASA, so there should be many opportunities to make fundamental discoveries.”

Chris Kiely, professor of materials science and engineering and director of Lehigh’s Nanocharacterization Laboratory, says the collaboration with NASA will help Lehigh learn how to make electron microscopes more easily available to users at remote sites.

“Up until recently, remote microscopy has been cumbersome and not really practical,” says Kiely. “But Internet 2 and better software are making it more viable for someone at NASA to do experiments in our labs. The only thing you cannot do remotely is to load a specimen. Everything else – setting the apertures, controlling the alignment and acquiring data – can be done remotely.”

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, July 05, 2005

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