Space rock

Leicester University researchers are to investigate the properties of a substance found on rocky bodies in the solar system using microgravity environments provided by spaceplanes.

Dr Duncan Law-Green and David Boyce of the Department of Physics and Astronomy have each been awarded $5,000 (£2,630) by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) to design microgravity experiments for submission to NASA.

Their experiments would fly on future manned suborbital spacecraft such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which experience several minutes of microgravity or free fall at the fringes of space during their flights.

The pair are currently developing their proposals at Leicester’s Space Research Centre (SRC) and their experiments could be aboard suborbital research flights around 2011-12.

They will investigate the physical and chemical properties of regolith, the powdery material found on the surface of the Moon and other rocky bodies in the solar system, which could find a use during future manned Moon landings.

Dr Law-Green said: ‘The advantage of the new commercial suborbital spaceplanes such as SpaceShipTwo is that they will provide scientists with cheaper and more frequent access to space, as well as the ability to have a researcher in place to monitor an experiment in real-time.

‘If we want to fly an experiment again the following day, we will be able to do that more easily with a spaceplane than with a conventional-sounding rocket. The research potential of this new generation of commercial manned spacecraft is very exciting.’