Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Morgan State Reaches into Space: Physics Experiments Part of New Emphasis on Science

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Morgan State Reaches into Space: Physics Experiments Part of New Emphasis on Science

Article excerpt

Morgan State Reaches into Space: Physics Experiments Part of New. Emphasis on Science

by Garland L. Thompson

BALTIMORE, MD -- With his institution shutting down for the end-of-the-year holidays, Ernest C. Hammond Jr. was still at work. Shortly before Christmas, Hammond, a Morgan State University physicist, had received his latest photographic film samples from NASA. He and a small group of scientists and students have the problem of figuring out how flying on the space shuttle affects film used in orbital observatories.

Morgan State has gone into space. In partnership with Johns Hopkins University, Morgan is part of a Space Grant Consortium. Goddard Space Flight Center donated a supercomputer to Morgan to support a Minority University Space Infrastructure Network in 1991, in recognition of the strength of its science programs. And in another recent experiment, completed with Howard University, Morgan students sent aloft over-the-counter medicines, testing the effect of exposure on their efficacy for NASA.

Cosmic Ray Culprits?

The film experiments ask several questions: Do cosmic rays randomly age the film? Does the mysterious glow seen by astronauts, sparked by the electromagnetic winds blowing between the earth and the sun, invade its photographic emulsion? Or is the partial fogging astronomers have noticed a product of more mundane causes -- say, the heat levels in the shuttle cargo bay? Could the chemical makeup of film canisters somehow matter?

Scientists want the answers, especially those who use space-going observatories to see things hidden from ground-bound telescopes. Edwin Hubble's namesake in the sky is shaking up modern cosmology, but not every new discovery passes over the refocused mirrors of the boxcar-sized space telescope.

Since 1974, scientists have sent more than 400 rolls of film into space to record data picked up by sensitive instruments in orbit. In experiment, the Ultra Violet Image Telescope aboard the ASTRO I and II observatories went aloft carrying 70-millimeter spectroscopic film. Analysis of the images captured on the film help scientists unravel the secrets of the distant stars. Other packages use 35 mm film.

Knowing exactly how, and how fast, film ages under spaceflight conditions, and figuring out why some film suffers greater fogging than other samples in the same package will help give the astronomers better confidence in the accuracy of their results.

Heat Damage

Hammond, his co-investigators and students are finding the answers. One finding was that heat introduced when the spacecraft is on the ground can significantly cut the film's effectiveness in space. "Outgassing" of metal in the film canisters, occurring in the vacuum of space, was found to affect the film, in addition to heat introduced during takeoff and landing. Cosmic rays, intriguing culprits though they may be, were found not to have significant effects.

Beside the scientific rigor of the work, Hammond and his cohorts struggle against a less quantifiable foe: stereotypes that say African Americans cannot do cuttingedge science, that scholars at historically Black colleges and universities cannot meet the high standards expected by agencies such as NASA.

"Nobody pays any attention when we do this kind of work," Hammond said. "We've been doing experiments like this for years, but nobody talks about it. When you see news reports in the media, it's as if we didn't exist."

In fact, minorities have quietly increased their participation nationwide in science and technical careers. …

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