BIOVIA and EXCISS Partner to Find the Origin of Our Planets
For scientists and members of the public alike, experiments performed by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) take on an aura of prestige. Designated as a bastion of research since 2005, the ISS is an enduring symbol of international scientific collaboration and in the exploration of space. The ISS’s rightfully earned reverence is especially strong from scientists with an interest in natural history and matters such as the formation of planets. As a result of ongoing experimentation onboard the ISS, researchers are producing new findings which contribute to the history of our local astrophysics by examining chondrule composition.
The EXCISS Project (Experiment on Chondrule Formation on the ISS) is a student-driven research team led by graduate student Tamara Koch and professors from Goethe University in Frankfurt. Recently they began work with the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR), the German national center for aerospace, energy, and transportation research. The joint collaboration hopes to explore the mechanisms that lead to the formation of the building blocks of the planets in our Solar System, chondrules. These heterogeneous rocks, often found in the tails of meteoroids, are some of the oldest materials in the Solar System. Understanding how these particles formed could shed some light on the early stages of planet formation.
Why Study Chondrules?
Chondrules are to be submillimeter- to millimeter-sized spherical particles which can make up to 80% of the mass of many asteroids and, by extension, rocky planets. Most chondrules that have been found formed approximately 4.56 billion years ago, when the Solar System existed as a cloud of gases and silica and metallic dust orbiting a “protosun.” Some event must have heated these dust particles to around 1700-2100K to make them sticky, such that they could aggregate into larger and larger particles, such as chondrules and, eventually, planets.
The missing piece in the puzzle of planet formation has been to explain how this process got started. Gravity, the force which holds large objects like planets together, is not strong enough to cause small objects such as the microscopic dust found in the early Solar System to aggregate into larger clusters like chondrules. As a result, there must have been some additional processes in the early universe to cause these small dust particles stick together. However, the mechanisms to explain these phenomena have been an area of intense debate, with many different theories proposed. The EXCISS team hopes to explore the various pathways that could lead to chondrule formation by recreating the environment of the early Solar System.
How Will They Do It?
Among the many theories that attempt to explain chondrule formation, the EXCISS team is focusing on the effects of “nebular lightning.” At its core, this theory posits that as the multitude of particles that made up the solar nebula during the early Solar System continually collided, charged particles could be created. Over time, these clouds of charge would build up and eventually discharge as large bolts of lightning across the nebula, generating the heat needed for chondrule formation. This theory does present some strong points: the energy of a lightning bolt could discharge enough energy to rapidly heat and melt aggregates; the variety of particles present could yield the myriad of chondrules we observe today; and the relative frequency of lightning could provide more opportunities to melt and re-melt aggregates. However, critics of the theory argue that it is unclear if these collisions could lead to charge separation, that the lightning may not produce sufficient heat to melt mm-sized aggregates, and that the local environment would cool these aggregates too quickly to lead to the textures seen in chondrules. Many experiments have only explored pieces of this theory, necessitating a more formal study in the place where it happened: outer space.
Up until now, most experiments to explore the nebular lightning theory have taken place on Earth, preventing long-term access to the microgravity environments seen in space. At best, drop towers would allow scientists to explore particle interactions for short periods of time and limited the study to exploring interactions after chondrule formation. To answer this question, testing needed to happen in space; the Earth’s gravitational field could distort the motion of the dust particles, skewing results.
By bringing these experiments into space, the EXCISS team hopes to take advantage of extended access to microgravity to test the effects of the combination of heat and collisions simultaneously without the interference of Earth’s gravitational field. However, testing in space presents unique challenges for the EXCISS team: their testing devices must be small, yet tough, ensuring that potential losses of power to not corrupt data collection or transfer to and from the ISS. As a result, the team turned to partners across their university as well as externally to facilitate a multidisciplinary approach in solving these problems.
The BIOVIA Partnership
The EXCISS Team partnered with Dassault Systèmes BIOVIA to help support the collaborations that are powering the project. The team is pulling in scientists from a wide range of fields, from geology to physics and beyond, to tackle the various questions that this experiment hopes to answer. This does present a challenge, however, as communicating and sharing data using traditional methods such as paper notebooks, USBs, or internet drop boxes often led to data being underutilized. BIOVIA ScienceCloud provided them with the collaborative solution they needed to effectively communicate ideas and data as the team has constructed the devices they plan to use on board the ISS. It helps to ensure that data is captured and shared with all the key stakeholders in the project across the globe – and over it.
At time of writing, the EXCISS team is going through the final risk assessments and troubleshooting of their experimental devices to prepare for the project launch. German astronaut Alexander Gerst will be bringing the experiment on board the ISS in March 2018, and experiments will be conducted over the following 18 to 24 months.
If you would like to learn more about the EXCISS Project and track the progress of their mission to explore the origins of the Solar System, check out their website at www.exciss.space.
To learn how BIOVIA ScienceCloud can help your organization overcome its collaboration challenges, please contact us.