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By John Allen
Nanotechnology promises innovative but practical advances in space exploration in the future. Yet the historical application reveals how the technology has both influenced and affected space exploration since Armstrong and Aldren first stepped onto our moon’s surface. Both the Voyager 1 and 2 probes launched in 1977 are now beyond the heliopause (the outer edge of the Sun’s protective bubble). However since 1969, manned space travel has been confined to earth’s natural satellite. Fortunately, advances made in the past 50 years have enabled scientists to theorise and expand beyond what we thought was possible back in 1969.
Nanotech: From Everyday Use to Space Travel
Nanotechnology lies behind everyday convenience with earthbound application being used in space. Products including sunscreen, liquid crystal displays (LCD), organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) and self-cleaning glass have directly influenced the advancement of space travel. How? Let us take the example of the OLED. To the average user, the OLED has meant higher resolution images on their television screens, MP3 players (an iPod being a good example) and home computers. Replacing the old cathode ray tube (CRT) with an LCD and now the latest OLED has meant thinner and lighter technology for display screen equipment worldwide and in space.
The emissive electroluminescent layer of an OLED is made of a thin-film of organic compounds. The nanotechnology component lies in the use of carbon nanotubes in the manufacturing of transparent electrodes. Nanoparticle-based coatings for OLEDs are also gaining in popularity as they protect the equipment from environmental damage including water, scratches and knocks. These types of DSE are already been used at home (see Sony’s Bravia OLED 4K HDR) and in space travel as they are more resistant to breakage, and require less room and power to operate. As OLED technology progresses, screens will soon become widely available as roll up DSEs with prototypes already available on the open market. But OLEDs are not the only help nanotechnology has brought to space travel.
3D printing technology is already capable of producing micro-sized lithium batteries some of which have been used in space, but scientists have also discovered nanotechnology applications. Advanced printing techniques allow the production of advanced nanoscale structures that are complex and infeasible by conventional methods. Imagine being able to print replacement nano-processors for on board computers in space?
The Present Future of Space Travel
Nanotechnology is already a proven reality in everyday products and services, but what about the past and future of space travel? Before the space shuttle was retired by NASA, every launch cost the agency upward of $500 million. Then came the Deep Space 1 launch in 1998. Using an electric propulsion system (EP) to accelerate the chemical propellant of launch fuel, NASA engineers became excited by the potential efficiency for future missions. Instead of traditional rocket fuel, future spacecraft could be equipped with electrostatically charged and accelerated nanoparticles. This would radically reduce the volume or size of a space craft, allowing for more fuel efficient launches from earth or an increased cargo capacity.
In addition to EP, scientists have been using nanoparticles in the construction of everyday clothing. Manufacturers have been creating clothes that provide increased protection from UV radiation for nearly a decade. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide have been incorporated into t-shirts, trousers and hats to better protect human skin from sun damage. This type of nanoparticle has already been used in the spandex, elastic polymer and nylon that spacesuits are made from. NASA and other space agencies have already been researching the future applications of nanotechnology in space suits with designs incorporating nanobiotechnology. This tech would be capable of providing astronauts additional protection as well as able to seal and repair any breach in an extravehicular activity (EVA) suit.
The Future is Even Brighter
Since 1969 nanotechnology has and will continue to advance stellar exploration for years to come. NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan have all had plans on the drawing board for solar sails, space elevators and space suits all utilising nanotechnology. The question is no longer if these advancements will happen, but when.
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