Minding Her Space

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“Auburn University gave me this once in a lifetime opportunity to conduct research for my doctoral degree on the International Space Station (ISS),” explained Lori Scott, a graduate student in the Department of Physics.

Scott’s experiment for her dissertation titled “Looking at thermal energy in complex plasmas” happened more than 200 miles above Earth and completely out of this world.

The project took place aboard the ISS on the Plasma Krystall-4 (PK-4).

Using the PK-4, the complex plasma was observed under microgravity to test how the thermal properties of dust particles in a plasma environment interact and evolve. The images aboard the ISS were recorded so the data could be reviewed and analyzed.

The goal of this project is to research polarity switching, a stopping technique used in PK-4, to see how the kinetic energy of flowing dusty plasmas is converted into other forms of energy once the particles are stopped.

Leading up to this day, months of planning were required to refine the proposal and test detailed computer scripts ensuring the appropriate data would be collected. Scott traveled multiple times to a center in Munich, Germany, to collaborate with other researchers.

In July 2019, Scott traveled to a location in France to interact with Russian cosmonauts on the ISS.

A cosmonaut began the actual experiment on the ISS and then Scott with Dr. Edward Thomas, Jr., associate dean for academic affairs and research from Auburn University, and Dr. Jeremiah Williams, associate professor from Wittenberg University, were in control.

“We had to quickly decide how to adjust the cameras recording the data since the dust clouds separated into multiples in microgravity,” she said.

The experiment here on Earth would have shown the dust clouds as a two-dimensional layer on the ground. However, in microgravity, the dust clouds expand to a three-dimensional system where researchers can record and analyze detailed interactions among the particles.

“Gravity masks the hidden forces and microgravity gives us an opportunity to see the plasma as a larger system,” Scott added.

Once the experiment was complete, Scott traveled back to Munich, Germany, in November 2019 to collect the actual data recorded on the ISS.

“We will be comparing two sets of data. The ISS data will be compared to a ground module with the exact same settings,” she mentioned.

After the research is analyzed, Scott is hoping to conduct another experiment on the ISS before defending her dissertation.

Scott and this dedicated team work in collaboration with other scientists, the German Center for Air and Space, European Space Agency, and ROSCOSMOS, the Russian Space Agency. Dr. Uwe Konopka, associate professor of physics, is the principal investigator of the joint NASA-National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that funds the project with Drs. Thomas and Williams as co-PIs. Additional support for Scott is provided through the NSF and Alabama EPSCoR project, "Connecting the Plasma Universe to Alabama (CPU2AL)."

“My favorite memory from this day was when I was able to wear a headset in the control room in France,” Scott said. “I will forever be part of the experiment and part of the research.”

For Scott, research will definitely be part of her career.

“I really do like to teach, but I love to conduct research,” Scott said.

She began graduate school at Auburn and found an immediate connection in the Department of Physics.

“The smaller classes gave me more one-on-one time with my professors and helped me find a great fit with my graduate advisor, Dr. Thomas,” Scott explained. “Once I began conducting research, I realized that research can take you anywhere and as a graduate student I had an incredible opportunity that I could have never imagined.”

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