The space shuttle Discovery is returning a UAB-designed cryogenic freezer from the International Space Station, and work will soon begin to prepare the freezers for the next generation of U.S. spacecraft.
“We’re preparing the freezers for flights to the space station on the remaining shuttle flights, and we’re about to start the certification and verification process for the new NASA and commercial launch vehicles,” says David Ray, research engineer in the Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering (CBSE). “We should be able to fly on the next generation of launch vehicles in 2011.”
UAB research engineers designed and
built the GLACIER, which is now being
used on the International Space Station.
The certification of the GLACIER, short for General Laboratory Active Cryogenic ISS Experiment Refrigerator, will begin within the next year.
One current generation GLACIER arrived at the International Space Station in November 2008 aboard the shuttle Endeavour. The crew of Discovery will replace that GLACIER with another one on its current trip to the space station. The crew is expected to bring back frozen samples of cell cultures grown in space and blood and urine samples that will enable the study of the nutritional characteristics of astronauts on long-duration space flight.
“We’ll be swapping out the freezers, and I think it’s important to point out that we’re providing the freezer as a facility to the space station,” Ray says. “These are not only for UAB samples. For this first flight, the samples are from researchers in Japan, and we have blood and urine samples from crewmembers of the space station that will be analyzed by research teams in an effort to study crew health after exposure to long-duration space flight. This is the type of research we are supporting for this first flight.”
Designed, built at UAB
The cryogenic freezer was designed and built by research engineers in the CBSE.
The freezer, funded by a NASA contract awarded to the CBSE in 2005, can store 31 liters of products. The outer dimensions of the freezer are 20.5 inches tall, by 21.8 inches wide, by 18 inches deep.
“It was quite difficult to design and build,” Ray says. “It’s a technical challenge to try to package something that has the capability to cool down to minus-160 Celsius and be able to fit into a double middeck locker or equivalent spot on the shuttle. You also have to meet strict requirements for space flight hardware and still provide the volume and mass for the samples.”
The intent is to fly one GLACIER on every remaining shuttle flight that goes to the space station. The last two space shuttle flights will fly two freezers up and bring two back.
Systems Engineers Josh Dunn and Lisa Smith and other UAB engineers were responsible for sending the first start-up signals to the ISS to begin cooling down GLACIER in January. It took more than six hours to reach a temperature of minus-95 degrees Celsius.
There’s no doubting the power of the freezer, however. GLACIER can maintain a temperature of minus-160 degrees Celsius (minus-256 degrees Fahrenheit) when provided with maximum power resources available to payloads at the International Space Station.
UAB engineers use a satellite-linked control center on campus to monitor and command the freezers while they operate aboard the ISS and will continue to do so in the future.
Finally, a cold drink
The November mission also featured another UAB-designed refrigerator/freezer known as MERLIN, the Microgravity Experiment Research Locker/Incubator. It’s approximately half the size of the GLACIER and is used in a different capacity. Instead of ferrying research samples to and from the ISS, the MERLIN is used to store fresh food and drinks. The Space Station has never had this capability until now.
“Most people probably don’t realize we have the capability to design and build these kinds of devices in Birmingham,” Ray continues. “We’re looking forward to continuing the process with modified and new freezers in the future. I’m sure it will require some minor hardware modifications. We’ll start working on those changes in the coming year.”