Nanotechnology Boosts Space Travel with Lightweight Spacecraft
Nanotechnology research scientists estimate that using high-strength, lightweight materials could reduce the weight of spacecraft by as much as 30 percent. Researchers at NASA’s Glen Research Center are developing composites of polymer and nanoparticles that provide such high-strength, lightweight materials.
One of the nanoparticles they’re working with is carbon nanotubes. These nanotubes are functionalized (the properties of the nanotubes are customized to perform a specific function) by bonding oxygen atoms to their surface. The oxygen atoms help the carbon nanotubes couple with the polymer matrix, which provides the composite with greater strength.
These researchers are also working to strengthen materials using silica aerogels. An aerogel is a gel in which liquid is replaced by gas, making it a great insulator. Silica aerogels are composed of silica (silicon dioxide, the same stuff that makes up glass) nanoparticles interspersed with nanopores filled with air. Because of all that air, nano aerogel is one of the best thermal insulators known to man.
Researchers have found that coating the surface of silica aerogel with polymers increases the strength so much that these gels can actually support a mechanical load. This characteristic could allow an aerogel material to serve several functions in cryogenic fuel tanks, providing both insulation and additional strength.
Additionally, NASA has included a concept called self-healing spaceships in their 2030 nanotechnology roadmap. Just as your skin heals a small puncture wound, the folks at NASA are hoping that nanotechnology can provide a way for the skin and structural components of a spaceship to seal damage from meteors and other debris.
NASA is also planning to use nanosensors to improve the monitoring of spaceship systems such as life support. The capability of nanosensors to quickly report changed levels of trace chemicals in the air could be very useful to keeping life support systems working correctly in a spaceship’s closed system.
A longer-term proposal is to place nanosensors throughout the skin of a spacecraft to act like the nerve endings in your skin. When a particular region of the spacecraft skin becomes stressed or damaged, an alert is sent to the main computer to take action and alter the spaceship’s course, just as you would jerk your hand away from a hot stove.