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High-Altitude Science Reveals Secrets of Glowing Plasma

There’s a lot of science happening in the bowels of the International Space Station 249 miles overhead. Astronauts are chowing down on experimental salads grown from LEDs and hydroponics. Silkworms are being bombarded with cosmic radiation to see how they react.
In June, in a laboratory called Plasma Krystall-4 (PK-4), scientists also started unlocking the secrets of plasma – ionized gases that make up the fourth state of matter and 99 percent of all visible material in the universe. More close to home, a common form of plasma glows inside neon signs.

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A plasma ball

.PK-4 is a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency. The researchers are relying on a rugged GE computer design to study a special subgroup of plasma called complex plasmas. This is the second ISS research project using GE technology. Since 2011, astronauts have been using an ultrasound system made by the company’s healthcare unit for cardiac, muscle, vessel, and blood flow analysis.

Complex plasmas are a low-temperature mixture of microparticles and ionized and neutral gases found throughout space. Researchers hope that learning more about this material will contribute to the fundamental understanding of nature and better designs for returning spacecraft, whose heat shields generate plasma as they reenter Earth’s atmosphere.

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Top: The International Space Station is orbiting 249 miles above Earth. Above: PK-4 control and video unit during an in-orbit installation. Image credit: ESA/ROSCOSMOS

Such complex plasma experiments can’t be performed on Earth in the same way because the planet’s gravity distorts the results by acting on the suspended microparticles. But observing the material in microgravity will help scientists better understand the fundamentals of how plasma naturally flows in space. Researchers hope PK-4 will reveal some of the mysteries of so-called plasma crystals, which form when microparticles like dust become highly charged by exposure to ionized gas. Charged particles then start interacting and self-organize into crystal structures.

“Complex plasmas are studied in gas discharges at low pressures,” writes Dmitry Zhukhovitskii, a physicist at the Russian Academy of Sciences who is working on the PK-4 experiments. “Under microgravity conditions, large volumes of 3D complex plasma can be observed. These conditions are realized either in parabolic flights or onboard the International Space Station.”

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Above: PK-4 started running research in June 2015. Image credit: NASA/ESA

At the heart of PK-4 are two GE CR11 units – single board computers ruggedized by the company’s Intelligent Platforms business. They can perform in harsh environments where previously it would be unthinkable to put delicate electronics—on oil and gas platforms, inside military equipment and in space.

The computers running the PK-4 experiments are built to record massive amounts of video at 130 megabytes per second and automatically execute a list of commands to perform the science and display video from the experiments.

“This is a great example of what GE Rugged is all about,” said Chris Lever, general manager for embedded systems at GE’s Intelligent Platforms business. “Whether it’s in the harsh environment of a heavy manufacturing facility, a railroad locomotive, onboard an armored vehicle – or, as it is here, out in space – GE’s solutions are designed to operate with absolute reliability wherever they are deployed, in whatever conditions.”

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The International Space Station is orbiting 249 miles above Earth.

Rubin Dhillon, director of marketing for the embedded computing division of GE’s Intelligent Platforms business, says there are a number of fundamental changes that need to be made to off-the-shelf electronics to make sure they keep operating when subjected to heavy vibration, shock, radiation, temperature swings and humidity.

“A very simple example is soldering components to the printed circuit board, rather than the more common approach of inserting those components into sockets,” Dhillon says. “A component that’s soldered on will stay where it’s put, however much shock and vibration it’s subjected to. It’s a more expensive way of doing things – but if a computer is mission-critical, no company wants to skimp.”

He says that highly specialized missions like those aboard the ISS show rugged GE computers can perform “sophisticated, demanding applications that require huge amounts of data to be processed very fast, coupled with the ability to operate with absolute reliability under the most challenging of conditions.”

Says Dhillon: “If we can build computers good enough for that, you can bet we can build computers good enough for pretty much anything anyone wants to throw at them.”

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