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Satellite opens space science to millions of children

Rescue and repair of the Solar Maximum satellite has caught the spotlight for the current shuttle mission. But that other satellite that Challenger has launched is of equal importance.

It too opens a new phase of space activity - a phase in which low-cost space science will be widely available. That includes active participation by millions of students in elementary and high school classrooms throughout the United States.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls the satellite LDEF (long duration exposure facility). It has fittings for dozens of experiments - 57 on the current mission. These are simple experiments, often passive, that take advantage of the space environment. They include such projects as seeing how solar cells and other materials survive long exposure in space, capturing cosmic ray particles, and growing crystals in space.

LDEF - a product of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. - is the first satellite specifically designed for shuttle operation. It is placed in orbit by the shuttle, drifts in orbit for many months, and is later retrieved by the shuttle.

Experiments range in cost from $10,000 or $20,000 for simple exposure tests to about $1 million for more sophisticated payloads. Eventually, several LDEFs may be in orbit with typical missions lasting as long as 10 years. Meanwhile, the present LDEF, which will be used repeatedly, is pioneering this new type of space science with a mission expected to last about 101/2 months as it drifts along some 340 miles above Earth's surface.

The payload that may have the most far-reaching impact is called Seeds in Space. Some 13 million tomato seeds are being flown. When returned to Earth, experimenters will study them to see if they have undergone mutation or otherwise been affected by the space environment.

Among the investigators will be millions of students in 130,000 US classrooms. NASA officials plan to distribute packages of the space seeds, along with comparable seeds that have been kept on the ground for comparison. Teachers and students will grow both types of seeds as class projects and carefully note any differences.

LDEF chief scientist William H. Kinard says he expects many students who are intrigued by these projects will become the space scientists of tomorrow.