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NASA gives A&M researchers grant

Published: Thursday, July 29, 2004

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07

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Graphic by Andrew Burleson

Researchers at Texas A&M have been given a $900,000 grant from NASA to study new sterilization methods for spacecraft. The research is being conducted by Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Food Research, and Les Braby, a research professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Sterilizing the space equipment guarantees accurate feedback from the craft. When conducting missions, such as searching for signs of life on Mars, NASA scientists don't want to accidentally discover bacteria the rover brought with it, Pillai said.

NASA currently sterilizes most equipment using dry-heat sterilization, but this process can be damaging to many sensitive spacecraft components.

"Dry heat sterilization, as the name implies, uses high temperature to destroy bacterial vegetative cells and bacterial spores. Electron-beam technology uses ionizing radiation generated by means of a linear accelerator to destroy these same bacterial cells and spores. Since this sterilization process does not involve heat, components that are heat sensitive can still be sterilized using electron-beam technology," Pillai said.

The research at A&M is being conducted as a partnership with the Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology.

Braby said NASA selected A&M as the recipient of the grant due in large part to the superb facilities available at A&M's Food Irradiation Laboratory.

"The availability of our food irradiation research facility on campus provides the high-energy electrons to compare with the low-energy electrons that they are working with at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," Braby said.

Doug Johnson, general manager of the Food Irradiation Lab, said most universities have basic irradiation equipment, but that A&M's lab was five times more powerful than the standard laboratory device and designed to handle a much larger scale of operation.

"The researchers here have access to the same equipment you would normally find only in an industrial setting," Johnson said. "That's pretty unique. We (at A&M) really are well endowed by not just the facilities we have but the people we have."

Many NASA technologies have later found a wide range of everyday uses. Pillai said he hopes the advancements made to the technology as a result of this research will benefit scientists and consumers alike.

"There probably hasn't been any research like this with regards to spacecraft parts before," Braby said. "It's a fairly unique combination of agriculture and engineering."

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