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Researchers Study Graphene’s Reaction in Extreme Space Conditions

The Centre for Advanced Two-Dimensional Materials (CA2DM) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has partnered with US-based aerospace company Boreal Space to examine the properties of graphene after it has been launched into the stratosphere. The results could provide an understanding of how graphene could be used for satellite and space technologies.

A team led by Professor Barbaros Özyilmaz from NUS CA2DM coated a single layer of graphene on a substrate, and the experiment was placed in the payload enclosure of the ‘Wayfinder—Mini’ CubeSat. (Photo: Boreal Space)

Graphene’s usefulness on Earth has already been established in the last decade. It is now an opportune time to expand its prospects for use in space applications— an area touted as being the most challenging to modern technology— and shift the paradigm of materials science. Space is the final frontier for graphene research, and I believe this is the first time that graphene has entered the stratosphere.

Professor Antonio Castro Neto, project leader and director of NUS CA2DM

Pushing the limits for graphene research

Two-dimensional graphene has a distinct combination of being very flexible, stronger than steel, and harder than diamond. While scientists are aware that it may have potential for space applications, its practical applications have yet to be determined.  

To move a spacecraft over long distances in space, huge accelerations and speeds which are only possible with very low mass equipment are needed. Graphene is the ideal material as it is among the lightest, yet strongest, functional materials we have. In addition, the high electronic performance of graphene makes it a prime candidate to handle the lack of oxygen and low temperatures in space,” explained Prof Castro Neto.

To test graphene’s versatility, a team led by Professor Barbaros Özyilmaz, Head of Graphene Research at NUS CA2DM, readied the material by coating a substrate with a single layer of graphene which was about 0.5 nm in thickness, more than 200 times thinner than a strand of human hair. The sample was tightly assembled within a Boreal Space ‘Wayfinder—Mini’ CubeSat, and postioned in the payload enclosure of the sounding rocket.

The spacecraft took off on June 30th over the Mojave Desert in the United States. The Boreal Space launch team was in control for the payload launch support during take-off, nose cone separation, tracking during flight, parachuting back to earth, impact, and recovery.

During the launch, the spacecraft was transported into suborbital environment, and the graphene material was exposed to harsh conditions like fast acceleration, acoustic shock, vibration, strong pressure, and a wide range in temperature variations. The sample re-entered Earth’s atmosphere after a 71 second flight, parachuting to a landing in the Mojave Desert.

The graphene sample was recovered by the team on the same day, and the NUS CA2DM team is performing tests to evaluate if its structural properties and stability were impacted during the launch and landing. Specifically, the team will utilize Raman spectroscopy methods to detect the occurrence of defects in the sample.

“If this research collaboration is able to demonstrate that graphene maintains its various properties and features after being launched into suborbital environment, it will open up exciting new opportunities for graphene to be incorporated into technologies suitable for outer space and aerospace missions. Such technologies can include electro-magnetic shielding, efficient solar power generation, and excellent thermal protection,” said Prof Castro Neto.

We are very excited about raising the technology readiness level of graphene and promoting its utility in space. I am convinced that graphene will play an extremely important role in space commercialisation. This and future launches support the demonstration of future uses of graphene-based technology in space.

Ms Barbara Plante, President of Boreal Space

Besides the NUS graphene experiment, the Boreal Space ‘Wayfinder—Mini’ CubeSat also hosted Gallium Nitride magnetic field sensors delivered by Stanford University’s Extreme Environments Lab (XLab). The Stanford team is seeking not only to gain important experimental data such as electronics signal integrity and launch load survival, but also insights into noise reduction, magnetic interference, and radiation effects on their sensors.

Following this joint mission, referred to as GRASP (GRaphene And Stanford Payloads), Boreal Space continues to provide suborbital and low earth orbit chances to test and confirm payload survivability and operability in the space environment.

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