How To Run An Experiment Without Leaving Home

November 26, 1997

A $20 million crystal growth experiment on board the current flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia is making Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute a testbed for the remote telescience that will be the paradigm for research on the planned International Space Station.

During the entire 16 days of the flight, Rensselaer's Isothermal Dendritic Growth Experiment is being controlled from a fully equipped control room on the Rensselaer campus, set up with the assistance of NASA. In preparation for the flight, NASA trained 36 Rensselaer undergraduate and graduate students to assist in staffing the 24-hour operation, giving them an experience they could only enjoy because of remote telescience.

Rensselaer's experiment represents the most extensive non-NASA remote operation on the flight. Other remote sites have been established in California for Stanford University's confined helium experiment and in Toulouse, France where the French Space Agency is monitoring MEPHISTO, an experiment that is looking at the role of convection during the solidification of materials.

In addition, the data being downlinked from the shuttle is the most sophisticated ever for dendritic growth studies.

"For the first time, we are seeing video from the shuttle that is giving us a real-time view of crystal growth in the microgravity environment of space," said Dr. Martin Glicksman, principal investigator on the Isothermic Dendritic Growth Experiment. "The high quality of video downlinked from Columbia will doubtless lead to new scientific findings about dendrite growth dynamics."

Glicksman, lead scientist Matthew B. Koss and their team of Rensselaer researchers have been partners with NASA in developing remote telescience -- sophisticated telecommunications technology that makes it possible for scientists to monitor and adjust experiments on the space shuttle from ground locations other than NASA facilities. Such decentralized capabilities will be essential in the era of an International Space Station when long term experiments of three to six months become the rule.

While progress toward the Space Station is the "pull" for remote telescience, advancing technology is the push. On early space shuttles most experiments were autonomous or controlled by astronauts.

During the 1994 IDGE experiment, one of the earliest to include downlinked television and extensive teleoperation, the images sent to Earth during the mission enabled the science team to make real-time adjustments in the experiment. This relatively unsophisticated system greatly reduced wasted photos and enabled the team to gather data from twice as many crystallization cycles. For that flight, however, Glicksman and Koss relocated to the NASA facility in Huntsville for the duration of the flight because the capabilities of remote telescience had not been developed.

Glicksman's second IDGE experience in 1996 marked the first time that a university researcher was able to control a shuttle experiment from a non-NASA facility. NASA and Rensselaer set up a facility on the Rensselaer campus where Rensselaer researchers, working with an on-site NASA engineer, controlled the experiment for the last few days of the flight. In addition, on the second IDGE flight, a more advanced system returned greatly improved still photos taken at 90 second intervals. The video system on the current mission is recording 30 images a second.

The IDGE experiment is studying the formation of dendrites, needle-like crystals shaped something like Christmas trees, which are formed when metals solidify. In the microgravity environment of space, Rensselaer scientists can isolate the parameters affecting crystal formation absent the forces of gravity that complicate dendrite formation on Earth. Already, the results of the two earlier experiments are being incorporated into computer codes that will be used by industry to create faster, cheaper, and more precisely engineered metal for products such as airplane turbines.

Contact: Sheila Nason (518) 276-6098, or Bruce Adams (518) 276-2840,

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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