Kevin Babson of Gray Court, a senior biology major at Lander University, has been awarded a $5,000 NASA grant through the S.C. Space Grant Consortium.
Babson is working with Dr. Lisa Brodhacker, assistant professor of chemistry at Lander, to develop epoxy telescope mirrors for use in space communications at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Babson is trying to determine if zirconium tungstate, when added to epoxy, will reduce the thermal expansion problems associated with the material so image distortions can be eliminated. If so, it would mean that epoxy telescope mirrors could be used not only for communications, but in viewing telescopes, too.
Zirconium tungstate particles expand when cooled, whereas epoxy tends to shrink. "Hopefully they'll counteract each other," said Brodhacker, who hopes the mirrors she and Babson are casting from zirconium tungstate-laced epoxy will retain a more uniform shape.
Their goal is to lower the coefficient of thermal expansion in the epoxy telescope mirrors they are making "to at least the level of glass."
NASA is interested in developing plastic mirrors because they are a tenth the weight of their glass counterparts. A 2-meter epoxy mirror weighs around 500 pounds, Brodhacker said, while a glass mirror the same size would weigh "several tons."
Manufacturing a glass telescope mirror may take years, depending on the size, Brodhacker said, but " it only takes a month to make an epoxy mirror of any size with an optical surface ready for plating, without any additional grinding or polishing."
"We're the only ones making lightweight mirrors out of epoxy, and that's why NASA is interested in us," she said.
Brodhacker is currently contracted to produce three epoxy telescope mirrors for NASA -- two 2-meter mirrors and one 1.5-meter mirror. When she and Babson are finished, hopefully by the end of the spring semester, Brodhacker will submit another proposal to NASA for additional funding that would allow her to continue her research.
Engineering problems kept Brodhacker and Babson from making the kind of progress they wanted to make during the summer. They had to redesign the oven two times. They waited for weeks for a controller to come in, after the original one proved defective. An air compressor also had to be replaced.
Brodhacker described the experience as "frustrating. It was one thing after another," she said.
With the engineering problems now behind her, Brodhacker can concentrate on what she does best -- the chemistry involved in the undertaking. The project holds one patent already, for the process that results in progressively thinner layers in mirrors, and she hopes to get another if zirconium tungstate proves to be the missing element in the process she is trying to perfect.
"The secret lies with the chemistry," she said.