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Making Spaceflight Safer

By Karl Hill

Hand-held analizer checks astronaut suit

A hand-held analyzer is used to check for hydrazine contamination on an astronaut’s spacesuit.

Analytical chemist’s work flies on International Space Station

A rack of instruments on the orbiting International Space Station includes an air quality monitoring device that has some of its origins in a basement laboratory in New Mexico State University’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Building.

It’s known as a VOA – volatile organic analyzer – and it was built by a British company in cooperation with a team at NMSU led by Professor Gary Eiceman, one of the world’s leading authorities on ion mobility spectrometry (IMS).

A handheld device based on the same technology has been used on space shuttle flights to check for hydrazine contamination as astronauts returned to the orbiter after spacewalks.

Eiceman’s work for NASA arose from a critical need – to be able to detect very low levels of hazardous chemicals in the confined spaces in which astronauts live, or before the living space is accidentally contaminated with toxic vapors absorbed on spacesuits during extra-vehicular activities (EVAs).

Hydrazine is of particular concern to NASA. Used as the propellant in the thrusters that maneuver the shuttle in orbit, hydrazine is “exquisitely poisonous,” Eiceman said.

“At 10 to 50 parts per billion, you feel your skin start to itch,” he said. “Over 100 parts per billion, you start to burn. Out of every million molecules of air, if 10 to 50 are hydrazine, your health will be at risk.”

Eiceman first became aware of the risks of hydrazine exposure in space travel in the late 1980s when a graduate student, Craig Leasure, returned to his laboratory after working for the summer at White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces.

“He said, ‘This is an opportunity for our laboratory to assist NASA,’” Eiceman recalled. Student and mentor both saw the potential for using ion mobility spectrometry to detect extremely low levels of hydrazine.

Tom Limero of Johnson Space Center also saw the potential, and funded Eiceman’s lab for a series of investigations beginning in 1989.

Professor Gary Eiceman

Professor Gary Eiceman leads a research team exploring ion mobility spectrometry, which has applications in homeland security, military defense and spaceflight.

Mobility analyzers can detect and identify volatile organic compounds by measuring how fast gaseous ions from a sample move through an electric field gradient. The speed is characteristic of a substance. IMS is fast, selective, small in size and low in power requirements.

Twenty-seven years ago, Eiceman was one of only two university researchers known to be working in the field of IMS. Today the field is more active, largely because of its applications in homeland security and military uses.

Mobility analyzers are used to screen baggage for explosives at airports around the world. More than 50,000 hand-held IMS chemical agent monitors (CAMs) are used by NATO forces to detect chemical weapons. Law enforcement agencies use the technology for detecting narcotics. IMS is beginning to find industrial applications as well, Eiceman said, and it could soon be used in clinical settings.

Eiceman’s technology-development work for NASA, resulting in the hand-held hydrazine detector and the air quality analyzer for the International Space Station, has been funded mainly by the Johnson Space Center in Houston and by NASA Headquarters.

“We were the lab chosen to answer the questions being asked by personnel at NASA,” he said. “Our role was to be the test bed, the incubation facility, for IMS technology and science for NASA.”

Step by step, Eiceman’s lab found ways to make IMS work for NASA’s needs. A British company with expertise in building spacequalified hardware – known then as Graseby Ionics Inc. and now as Smiths Detection – built the instruments in cooperation with Johnson Space Center, Eiceman’s group and a team at Louisiana State University.

Although the technology met NASA’s needs, “not anybody in the world really understood well what was going on inside the analyzers,” Eiceman said. So while Johnson Space Center funded the lab’s applied research, NASA Headquarters funded basic research to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the science underlying the measurements.

“We were doing basic and applied research simultaneously,” he said. “Our laboratory deciphered the principles that form the responses not just of these instruments (developed for NASA) but of all similar instruments.”

That combination of technology development and fundamental science discovery continues today in Eiceman’s laboratory, which typically keeps about a dozen researchers busy. His current team includes two undergraduate students, two master’s students, three Ph.D. students, a postdoctoral fellow, a senior research associate/lab manager, two faculty colleagues and a visiting faculty member from Canada.

Their work is funded by Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Federal Aviation Administration, private industry and recently NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In 2005, the second edition of Eiceman’s comprehensive book, Ion Mobility Spectrometry, co-authored by Zeev Karpas of Israel, was published by Taylor & Francis CRC Press.

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