CU Shuttle Experiment To Analyze Dust Particles In Space

April 06, 1998

A University of Colorado at Boulder space shuttle payload designed primarily by students to analyze the gentle collisions of dust particles in space may shed new light on the sources of dust in planetary rings.

Joshua Colwell, a research associate at CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said the payload consists of six self-contained experiments, each holding a spring-loaded sphere projectile and a tray of ground-up basalt that simulates space dust. The projectiles will spring from small doors in each container and softly strike the dust anchored in the box-like devices.

The CU-Boulder payload, dubbed COLLIDE, is now slated for launch on NASA's space shuttle Columbia April 16.

Two camcorders in COLLIDE will record all of the activity on videotape, allowing the CU team to analyze the amount, direction and speed of dust ejected from the target trays by each impactor, said Colwell, the principal investigator on COLLIDE.

Although dust is ubiquitous in the rings of the four gaseous giant planets, how the dust is "knocked off" larger ring particles a meter or more across during their continuous collisions with each other remains a mystery.

"The rings are comprised primarily of large particles, but we see dust throughout the rings," said Colwell. "The dust is short-lived, so it acts as a very sensitive tracer of the dynamics of the larger particles. But to understand that, we need to understand each step in the life cycle of a dust particle."

The experiments will feature four different impact speeds, two different depths of dust -- each less than one inch -- and two different spherical impactor sizes. Powered by 18 size-D batteries, the experiments will take 25 minutes to complete and will generate 16 minutes of videotape.

"We can't perform these experiments on the ground because of the enormous gravity of Earth," said Colwell. "We need to get into space to simulate the collisions of planetary ring particles, which are relatively gentle."

Colwell and former CU-Boulder astrophysics graduate student Martin Taylor, now at NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, came up with the original COLLIDE concept.

Former CU-Boulder aerospace engineering graduate student Lance Linigir, now at Martin Lockheed's Sunnyvale, Calif., facility, designed the mechanical structure and impact experiments on the payload.

Graduate student Barry Arbetter of CU-Boulder's electrical engineering department designed and built most of the COLLIDE electronics. Other present and former CU-Boulder students who worked on COLLIDE include Damon Tohill, Rebecca Hage, Andreas Lemos, Wayne Hooper and Jack Loui. In addition, Adrian Sikorski, an undergraduate at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., designed and built several COLLIDE components.

The students were assisted by LASP faculty, instrument assemblers and engineers during each step of the process, said Colwell.

The payload is part of NASA's Get Away Special program designed for smaller payloads, which generally involve students. COLLIDE was funded by NASA's Microgravity Sciences and Applications Division through the Innovative Research Program and NASA's Lewis Research Center.

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University of Colorado at Boulder

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