News / The University of Bristol

Bristol scientists’ work blasts off to International Space Station

By Ellie Pipe, Monday Jul 12, 2021

Materials developed by University of Bristol scientists and engineers will be blasted 250 miles onto the International Space Station (ISS).

The novel composites will spend six months attached to the SESAME module of the ISS as part of what has been described as a “ground-breaking” experiment to see how they will react to extreme conditions.

As the module orbits the Earth some 3,000 times at speeds of 17,000 mph, real-time data will assess how the materials are performing and will help scientists on the ground improve materials for the next generation of space missions.

The composites have been developed by PhD students Dr Yanjun He and Mayra Rivera Lopez, while the mission has been spearheaded by Ian Hamerton, a professor of polymers and composite materials at Bristol University.

Places on the spring 2022 mission were highly sought after and the team faced a five-month, competitive tender process to get their materials accepted.

Some of the Bristol team behind ISS project. L-R: Professor Fabrizio Scarpa, Professor Ian Hamerton, Professor Kate Robson-Brown, Mayra Rivera Lopez, Dr Joseph Gargiuli and George Worden – photo courtesy of Bristol University

Lopez, who recently won the People’s Choice Award at the annual 3MT (three-minute thesis) competition, hosted by the Bristol Doctoral College, said: “The development and testing of our composites into real space conditions is a big step for us as researchers.

“Through this mission, we will assess the performance of our already resilient composites, but also, we will obtain a better perspective on ways to keep innovating the composites design.”

The materials are being placed on the ISS to test them in the fierce space environment, where they will be subjected to micro-meteoroids, temperatures from -150C to +150C, high velocity dust, severe electromagnetic radiation and engineering debris.

Hamerton went on to explain the next steps, saying: “The data we recover will be used to make a ‘digital twin’ of the physical material, which will help us understand how these materials – and indeed other materials – function.

“Not only will this improve the performance of our composites, but it will help us and others develop even more ambitious space materials.”

The space-bound materials are part of the Euro Ageing programme, a £3.5m European Space Agency project that will see 45 materials exposed to the effects of space while encased in a chamber on the Bartolomeo platform specially designed for the ISS by Airbus.

PhD students Mayra Rivera Lopez and Dr Yanjun He developed the composites – photo courtesy of Bristol University


Dr He added: “The composites we developed has already been proven to show an excellent performance in a simulated space environment, while this project is able to push it further by examining our composites in a real space environment, which help us gaining a deeper insight on the design of composites for space applications.”

The data will be especially useful for Bristol student George Worden, who will develop and use the ‘digital twin’ in his PhD programme to break new ground in the field of space materials – including the potential to create composites with self-healing properties.

Financial support for the project has come from the UK Space Agency, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the University of Bristol.

The materials were developed using facilities within one of the University of Bristol’s specialist research institutes, the Bristol Composites Institute, with help from the National Composites Centre (NCC), based at Bristol & Bath Science Park in Emersons Green.

Stuart Donovan Holmes, head of defence and space at the NCC, said: “The NCC is delighted to support this ground-breaking and exciting science experiment onboard the International Space Station to advance the use of composites in the space environment.”

Main photo courtesy of NASA

Read more: New £2.4m innovation hub opens at Bristol & Bath Science Park 

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