With increased access to microgravity, in particular aboard the International Space Station, scientists have realized that conditions of near-zero gravity afford an excellent laboratory that can help them better understand the physical and chemical processes that shape materials. On Earth, gravity complicates the work of scientists trying to determine how various materials combine to form alloys with sought-after properties, in particular strength and lightness. In the microgravity conditions of the space shuttle, the space station Mir or the International Space Station, however, the disruptive effects of gravity are practically eliminated.
Since the early 1990s therefore, the Physical Sciences in Space Program has sought to help scientists gain a better understanding of the effect of gravity on the makeup and properties of materials. Thus, one of its main contributions to materials science has been the development of four generations of furnaces used in microgravity to develop new materials alloys.
The latest generation, the ATEN (Advanced Thermal ENvironment) furnace, is slated for the International Space Station. The ATEN furnace will fulfil a broad range of scientific requirements, since it will allow experiments to be done in fundamental areas (diffusion, Oswald maturation, particle pushing) and will also make it possible to improve materials processing techniques in order to produce higher-quality semiconductors, ceramics and glasses. The mission of these experiments will be to better understand the effects of gravity on the formation of various alloys.
The experiments carried out with the various generations of furnace have enabled the Canadian microgravity community to obtain excellent measures of intrinsic properties and of materials processing techniques. In fact, these experiments have given Canada a chance to become a world leader in a number of fields of materials science.
Other materials science experiments were supported by the Physical Sciences in Space Program. Cases in point are the CFZF, NANOGAS and CSAR I and II experiments.