Published: Jan. 12, 1998

A joint University of Colorado-NASA granular materials experiment flying on the space shuttle Atlantis Jan. 22 has implications ranging from geotechnical earthquake-hazard mitigation to safer grain storage.

The payload includes three containers carrying fine-grained quartz sand commonly used in civil engineering experiments, said Stein Sture, chair of the civil, environmental and architectural engineering department and principal investigator on the experiment.

The reduced gravity of space allows researchers to see how the grains behave under low stresses sometimes seen on Earth “when gravity is the main source that is deforming soils or causing them to fail,” said Sture.

Atlantis is slated for launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:48 p.m. EST. The eight-day mission will dock with the Mir space station and transfer more than 7,000 pounds of experiments, supplies and hardware. The transfer will include the return of an advanced bioprocessing apparatus and a suite of experiments developed at CU-Boulder’s BioServe Space Technology Center - headquartered in aerospace engineering -- that have been orbiting on the Russian space station since last September.

The heart of the granular materials experiment on the Jan. 22 mission consists of six containers shaped like equilateral prisms, each about six inches tall and three inches in diameter. Each container contains 2.8 pounds of sand.

Sture was aided on the project by CU aerospace engineering graduate students Susan Batiste and Paul Soltis. The payload was first flown aboard a shuttle in September 1996, said Sture, a flight that produced “some very promising results we are still in the process of analyzing.”

Video of the experiment from the shuttle should help researchers better understand the friction and interlocking of small particles that influence granular behavior. A collaborative effort of CU and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the experiment could lead to improved selection and preparation of building sites, better management of undeveloped land, new engineering analysis techniques and advances in the storage and handling of crops and processing of manufactured powders.

As an example, Sture cited coffee as a granular material that may show drastic behavioral changes under varying conditions. “While coffee is stiff and hard when vacuum packed, it flows freely when opened,” he said.

Since grain silos have been known to burst on occasion, resulting in economic losses, the results of the upcoming shuttle experiment also could help in the development of superior crop storage and processing systems on Earth, said Sture.

Color images of the granular materials hardware and experiments can be downloaded from the Internet at: .

Click on the Jan. 6 news release to download images and additional information.