Endeavour will carry work of McCormick Professor

Sammy Caiola

When the Space Shuttle Endeavour finally launches May 8, it will be taking a little bit of Northwestern with it.

McCormick Prof. Mark Hersam has developed a new material that could benefit spacecraft construction and help make solar batteries – if it can withstand the harsh conditions of outer space. To test the material’s durability, Hersam will send samples of the it up with NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour.

The Endeavour was first launched in 1992 and has since gone through many repairs in order to prepare for its launch, according to NASA’s website. Hersam said in an email that he teamed up with Ph.D. student Liam Pingree about two years ago, and they put the material on a waiting list to be sent off into space.

The samples were finished about 18 months ago, Hersam wrote, and are finally ready for the big trip.

“When it finally happens, I anticipate that I will experience a mixture of excitement, relief, and anticipation,” Hersam said.

The material is a thin film made of carbon nanotube and graphene, which, according to Hersam, is “exceptionally stable under a variety of conditions,” as he has seen in his five years of working with it. Hersam said the material could be damaged by radiation, which is much stronger in outer space than behind earth’s protective ozone layer.

If the material holds, it could be used on earth to generate renewable energy or in space to improve satellites. Hersam said if the films prove stable, he envisions them being used in the next generation of space craft.

All the films were produced exclusively in Hersam’s laboratory, he wrote. Stephen Carr, associate dean for Undergraduate Engineering, said the launch is another example of the high-visibility research of professors in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“The outcome of science is understanding,” Carr said. “To continue the pursuit of science, which has been called the endless frontier, is a hint to what this could mean for us. There’s a never-ending sequence of questions that can be answered, so this project has a long life ahead of it.”

Hersam got his material in the air just in time, as Endeavour will be the second to last shuttle launched before NASA retires the space shuttle craft, he wrote. Endeavour’s mission is to deliver a carrier and a spectrometer to the International Space Station, according to NASA’s website. The last shuttle NASA has plans to launch is the Atlantis, currently for departure on June 28.

“I will be eagerly anticipating the results of our experiments,” he said. “The launch is just the beginning of this story.”

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