Inside Building 4605 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, there’s a portal to space and all of its extreme conditions.

It’s called the High Intensity Solar Environment Test system, or HISET. NASA says the device’s chamber is the only place on Earth where spacecraft systems and materials can, at the same time, be subjected to the vacuum, temperatures, solar photons and other harsh conditions encountered in space travel.

“Space doesn’t just throw one thing at you at a time and let you deal with it,” said Todd Schneider, a physicist in the Environmental Effects Branch of Marshall’s Materials and Processes laboratory.

Todd Schneider adjusts the light hitting a sample inside the High Intensity Solar Environment Test system chamber at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (Image: NASA/MSFC Emmett Given)

“Space throws heat, it throws cold, it throws radiation, UV, plasma and more, all at one time. And there are synergistic effects.”

Researchers can place a test object inside the HISET’s 4-by-8-foot, cryogenically cooled vacuum chamber, seal it and then focus carefully controlled “sunlight” (made by high-power xenon arc lamps) and charged particles on the object as though it were in orbit around Earth, Mercury, or Mars.

Marshall’s scientists can create conditions like those encountered if the object were traveling near the dim, cold edge of the solar system or nearing the blazing corona of the sun itself.

“Our team is all about simulating the space environment on the ground,” Schneider said.

Hazards in space

Schneider works with NASA experts in ultraviolet, visible and infrared radiation, charged particles, the dust of lunar and other extraterrestrial environments such as Mars, the impact of micrometeoroids and orbital debris – in other words, just about every hazard that astronauts or equipment will encounter traveling in space.

Schneider is the principal investigator for HISET, which was created in part to test components of a Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons sensor package for NASA’s Solar Probe Plus. That mission, planned to launch in 2018, will send a spacecraft closer to the sun than ever before — within about 3.9 million miles. It must endure heat rising to about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and survive streams of charged particles and blasts of radiation as it sends information back to Earth.

The Space Environmental Effects team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, developed the Floating Potential Measurement Unit, seen at right mounted to a truss on the International Space Station. The FPMU measures electrical charges that can build on solar arrays and surfaces in orbit. (Image: NASA)

HISET’s unique capabilities are already being put to many other uses, including materials testing for the Lightweight Integrated Solar Array and Transceiver project at Marshall.

‘One-stop shop’ for research

The space environment expertise assembled at Marshall is used by the Department of Defense and other federal agencies, as well as the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory and other research organizations. The team’s skills are also in demand by the makers of communications and other types of satellites.

Inside the same building at the Huntsville complex, a plasma chamber has been set up to test tether-plasma interactions for the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System, or HERTS, also in development at Marshall. HERTS is a propellant-less concept that uses solar wind and an array of charged wires extending nearly 12.5 miles outward from a spacecraft for propulsion.

The Space Environmental Effects team at Marshall also tests metals and materials used on the International Space Station, helping make it possible for crews to live and work aboard the orbital laboratory continuously over the past 15 years. That experience is helping develop the knowledge and systems needed for astronauts to explore deep space and make a journey to Mars a reality.

“This is a one-stop shop for a whole suite of research,” Schneider said. “There is a wide, wide array of test capabilities here within a five-block radius.”