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Professor, student work with NASA to improve telescope

October 30, 2000

It may be as long as five to 10 years before NASA sends up another X-ray telescope, but when it is deployed, it could work better than current models thanks to research conducted by an Austin Peay State University student and professor.

Jeff Houze, a junior majoring in physics and the son of Cindy Foster of Clarksville, and Dr. Pei Xiong-Skiba, associate professor of physics, spent 10 weeks this summer at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., “trying to come up with a better X-ray telescope,” Xiong-Skiba says.

X-ray telescopes use highly polished metal mirror shells to collect light. However, the current mirror shells in X-ray telescopes are problematic—stains were appearing inexplicably on the gold surface of the reflecting mirror surface, which distorted the images, making them useless.

“NASA didn't know where the stains were coming from and how they affected the mirror quality of the telescopes,” Houze says. Houze and Xiong-Skiba worked to help NASA improve the electroplating process to prevent those stains from occurring.

First, the pair had to discover why the stains were being formed. They began by studying a ‘coupon,' or a part of the metal shell, using the same process that creates the mirror shells. That process includes depositing the gold film in a vacuum and electroplating the ultra-thin metal shell.

“We peeled the shell and saw stains left on the gold side,” Xiong-Skiba explains. “We viewed the piece under a microscope and found that on the gold-plated side, shell material on the outside seeped into the gold side. That caused growths of shell material.

“We believe the stains are related to hydrogen gas created in the electroplating process,” she says. “We then did a chemical analysis to confirm what the stain was.”

To put it plainly, the nickel-cobalt-phosphorous bath used by NASA is not 100 percent efficient in the current electroplating process. “The hydrogen atoms were permeating through the thin gold film, forming blisters, which caused the stains,” Xiong-Skiba says. “NASA is changing the electroplate baths, and we found some process to fix the stain problem. We're not yet finished, but we are working on it.”

Houze says the experience of doing lab work and actual experiments will help him when he graduates. Xiong-Skiba agrees, saying, “When you are in school, you may be focusing in one area, such as chemistry or physics. In the real world, you may have to know both chemistry and physics. This is something you learn through research. School work prepares you to some degree, but when you run into a new problem and try to understand it, you need more background.”

She says another benefit—in addition to gaining experience working with an agency as prestigious as NASA—was the number of seminars they had to attend during their 10-week stay. “Seminars were held twice a week, including one in which the NASA center director talked about what NASA does and career choices,” she says. “This will be helpful if he wants to go into industry or to graduate school—the NASA experience helps him stand out from the crowd.”

For more information about science programs and opportunites at APSU, telephone the APSU Office of Admissions at (931) 221-7661 or 1-800-844-2778.