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Investigating the Structure of Paramagnetic Aggregates From Colloidal Emulsions (InSPACE-2,-3)  



The InSPACE-3 experiment continues the InSPACE-2 studies to determine the lowest energy configurations of the three dimensional structures of a magnetorheological (MR) fluid under the influence of pulsed magnetic fields. In particular, InSPACE-3 will investigate the effect of non-spherical super-paramagnetic particles on the kinetics and formation of these aggregate structures that affect the visco-elastic properties of MR fluids.

Upcoming Events

  • July 2013 – The second series of runs for InSPACE-3 is tentatively scheduled in July 2013.
  • February 20, 2013 – InSPACE-3 operated 12 experiment runs for each of the 3 vial types on ISS to complete the 36-run test matrix. Eleven extra science runs were also completed including 3 characteristic runs with no magnetic field. The 47-run series of experiments was completed between October and February 2013.

  • October 5, 2012 – The first science run was completed by Astronaut Suni Williams.  The vial containing ellipsoid particle with aspect ratio = 2:1 was exposed to a pulsing magnetic field at low field strength.  Aggregates began to form after approximately 45 minutes, but rate of formation was slower than observed for InSPACE-2 with similar field strength and pulse frequency.  The next science run will test the same vial in a stronger, pulsed magnetic field at the upper range of the test matrix with expectations that the aggregates will form in a shorter time period.

  • On August 24, 2012 - Astronaut Suni Williams completed the installation of the InSPACE hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) and checkout.

  • On August 16, 2012 - Astronaut Suni Williams successfully replaced two cameras on the InSPACE optical assembly. The existing InSPACE cameras, experiencing degradation due to cosmic radiation, were removed and replaced with two new MSG cameras.

  • On July 18, 2012 – Astronaut Suni Williams performed particles distribution (mixing) operations and photographed the on-orbit InSPACE vial assemblies.

  • On July 2, 2012 – Astronaut Joe Acaba inspected and photographed the on-orbit InSPACE vial assemblies.

  • March 22, 2012 – Astronauts Chris Hadfield and Kevin Ford were trained the week of January 23 on InSPACE-3 science operations and the camera remove-and-replace procedures.  InSPACE-3 is tentatively scheduled for the start of operations in the MSG in late August 2012.

  • October 27, 2011 – InSPACE-3 on-ground vial samples identical to the flight samples continue to be inspected on a period basis to assess any changes to the colloid suspensions.

  • July 24, 2011 – Two astronauts, Joe Acaba and Sunita Williams, were trained on the InSPACE hardware in preparation for flight operations of InSPACE-3 during Increment 32.

  • May 16, 2011The InSPACE-3 vial assemblies were launched on the STS 134 Endeavour (Flight ULF-6).

  • On February 14, 2011InSPACE-3 passed its Engineering Systems Acceptance Review. The purpose of the review was to obtain engineering board assessment on the acceptability of the InSPACE-3 hardware to proceed with shipment for flight STS-134 (ULF6 Middeck).

  • On November 14, 2010a total of 12 vials were installed in flight vial assemblies.  The team is checking for potential leaks on a weekly basis and will select six of these vial assemblies closer to launch.

  • On October 15, 2010filling and sealing of the InSPACE-3 flight vials were completed.

  • On April 16, 2009the InSPACE-3 completed its Critical Design Review.


  • September 17, 2012 – A journal article on InSPACE-2 results was published on-line in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The reference for the article is: Swan, J.W. et al., “Multi-scale kinetics of a field-directed phase transition”, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2012 and is open access at the following link:  http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/11/1206915109.full.pdf+html

  • August 21, 2009The InSPACE-2 experiment continues the InSPACE-1 studies to determine the lowest energy configurations of the three dimensional structures of a magnetorheological (MR) fluid in a pulsed magnetic fleld.  InSPACE-2 completed its initial set of 42 test runs in 2008. During its initial runs performed in January and February 2008, a regime of buckling instability was observed in the three dimensional structures under particular magnetic field strength and pulse frequency conditions.  In 2009, InSPACE was given the opportunity to perform additional test runs due to delays in the shuttle schedule. We took advantage of this opportunity to better understand this regime of buckling instability

  • On Jan 27, 2009InSPACE was successfully installed in the MSG and 7 test runs (#43-49) were performed by astronauts Sandy Magnus and Mike Fincke during Increment 18 operations. We were then removed from the MSG following the last test run.

  • On July 13, 2009InSPACE was again installed in the MSG and between July - August 2009, ten additional test runs (#50-59) were performed by astronauts Koichi Wakata, Frank DeWinne and Mike Barratt during Increment 19/20 operations. We were again removed from MSG following the last test run.

The data from these test runs are currently being analyzed. In addition, work is continuing on build-up of the  InSPACE-3 experiment. The InSPACE-3 experiment will continue the InSPACE-1 and InSPACE-2 studies. In particular, InSPACE-3 will investigate the three dimensional structure formed by non-spherical super-paramagnetic colloidal particles in pulsed magnetic fields.


InSPACE is a microgravity fluid physics experiment that will be performed on the International Space Station (ISS). The purpose of this investigation is to obtain fundamental data of the complex properties of an exciting class of smart materials termed magnetorheological (MR) fluids. MR fluids are suspensions of small (micron-sized) superparamagnetic particles in a nonmagnetic medium. These controllable fluids can quickly transition into a nearly solidlike state when exposed to a magnetic field and return to their original liquid state when the magnetic field is removed. Their relative stiffness can be controlled by controlling the strength of the magnetic field. Due to the rapid-response interface that they provide between mechanical components and electronic controls, MR fluids can be used to improve or develop new brake systems, seat suspensions, robotics, clutches, airplane landing gear, and vibration damping systems.

Science Background and Objectives

The purpose of this investigation is to obtain fundamental data of the complex properties of MR fluids. Specifically, the goal of InSPACE is to determine the true three-dimensional low-energy(equilibrium) structure of an MR emulsion in a pulsed magnetic field. The microstructure of MR fluids plays a significant role in determining their bulk rheological properties. InSPACE will conduct a microscopic video study of the MR fluid in a pulsed magnetic field to determine the effect of varying magnetic field, pulse frequency, and particle size on the equilibrium microstructures. On Earth, gravity causes sedimentation, which means heavier groups of particles sink while lighter ones remain suspended. The low gravity environment that is provided on the space station facility will eliminate the effects of sedimentation, which otherwise become significant for these relatively large aggregate structures. A pulsed magnetic field will be used to mimic the forces applied to these fluids in real applications, such as vibration damping systems. A pulsed field also tends to produce intricate thick structures with different properties than structures produced by a constant magnetic field. InSPACE will provide fundamental data characterizing the structures formed in MR fluids. These results may be utilized to enhance applications on Earth and provide an early understanding of the behavior of MR fluids in microgravity so as to aid in the development of highly technical experiments.

Experiment Operations

The majority of the InSPACE hardware was launched to the ISS on Flight UF–2/STS–111 (June 5, 2002). The MR samples were launched on Flight 11A/STS–113 (November 23, 2002). Experiment operations by the ISS astronaut crew are scheduled to occur during ISS Expedition Six and Seven in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) that is located in the U.S. Destiny Laboratory Module. The MSG includes an enclosed work volume that provides power and interfaces for data and video that can be downlinked to the science team while the experiment is operating.

Increment 13 InSPACE video

Before the flight, three primary Helmholtz coil assemblies (electromagnets that produce a uniform magnetic field) and three spares, each with a small precision rectangular borosilicate glass vial, 50 millimeters long by 1 millimeter internal square, were outfitted with the MR fluid. Each fluid sample is composed of small, magnetizable particles of uniform size suspended in an aqueous medium. The particle sizes are different in each of the three primary coil assemblies. The crew will install a coil onto an optics assembly that includes two cameras for imaging the samples from a straight-on and right-angle view during test runs. The cameras will focus on a very small area of the vial, only 0.3 millimeters across. A backlighting system will be used to illuminate the samples.

The astronaut will set a specified electrical current and frequency on an avionics assembly that will produce a pulsed magnetic field inside the coil. This magnetic field will cause the particles in the fluid to group together, or aggregate, and form microstructures inside the fluid.

For a period of about 1 to 2 hours, the cameras will record the microstructures. This video will be distributed to the scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to the Telescience Center at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, where scientists and engineers will observe the microstructures as they form and change. The video recorded onboard the ISS will be returned to Earth for more in-depth analysis. Nine tests will be performed for each coil for a total of 27 experiment runs.


This is the first time this experiment has been conducted in space. It will provide fundamental data on the way the particles and aggregate structures in the fluid respond to a pulsed external magnetic field in a microgravity environment. When these fluids are used in braking systems and for other electromechanical devices, they are often exposed to such fields that affect their operations. The data from the experiment can be used to test theoretical models of the structure of suspensions of small particles in applied fields. By understanding the complex properties of these fluids and learning the way the particles interact, scientists can develop more sophisticated methods for controlling these fluids and using them in a variety of devices.

Helmholtz coil assembly
Helmholtz coil assembly
Optics Assembly
Optics Assembly
InSPACE-3 Vial Assembly
InSPACE-3 Vial Assembly
InSpace-2 Coil Assembly
InSPACE-2 Coil Assembly

Light source assembly
Light source assembly

Avionics assembly
Avionics assembly
InSPACE coil assembly
An InSPACE coil assembly is shown being installed in position for testing. The assembly holds a small vial which contains magnetorheological fluid.
InSPACE experiment hardware
InSPACE experiment hardware mounted in the MSG engineering unit during ground testing.


Contacts at NASA Glenn Research Center

Project Manager (InSPACE-3): Nang Pham, NASA-GRC

Project Scientist (InSPACE-3): Dr.Robert Green , NASA GRC

Deputy Project Scientist (InSPACE-3): Lauren Sharp, NASA-GRCLauren.M.Sharp@nasa.gov

Project Manager (InSPACE-2): Nancy R. Hall , NASA GRC

Project Scientist (InSPACE-2): Dr. Juan Agui, NASA GRC

Principal Investigator: Dr. Eric Furst, University of Delaware
Original Principal Investigator: Prof. Alice Gast, MIT

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Tim Reckart
NASA Official: Thomas St. Onge
Last Updated: May 20, 2013
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