You’re traveling at an astounding 8,000 meters per second. You’re closing in on the stratosphere… You’re through! and BAM! A micro chip floating in orbit from a satellite launched 50 years ago smashes through your windshield… recent illustrations show how much “space junk” is actually out there.
A sad scenario. But it doesn’t have to happen. Dr. Noam Eliaz and his team are researching new advances in materials science that would lessen the risk to these manned missions — and the men and women who live and work in them. The researchers are developing new nano-based materials with special qualities that can withstand collisions safely. The results of the team’s research are being reviewed by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
It’s a serious subject. Space debris threatens the lives of astronauts and the launch of new satellites today, says Dr. Noam Eliaz, Head of the Biomaterials and Corrosion Laboratory at the School of Mechanical Engineering at Tel Aviv University. An expert in materials science and engineering, Dr. Eliaz is working with a team at Soreq NRC to create and test new materials to make the heavens safer for satellites and astronauts alike.
The Hazards in Space
The oldest piece of “space junk” is the U.S. satellite Vanguard I, launched in 1958 and still in orbit. “Space debris has become a major concern recently, since collisions with such debris at ultrahigh velocities could be a disaster for spacecraft that pass through Earth’s orbit,” says Dr. Eliaz. “An impact could be catastrophic.”
Eliaz says that the combined effects of other components in the space environment, such as atomic oxygen, might increase the damage. The researcher, a past Fulbright and Rothschild scholar at MIT, is investigating new kinds of materials that could be used on spacecraft surfaces to protect against such hazards.
Finding an Answer in Materials Science
Eliaz is developing nano-based materials with special mechanical properties, such as high strength and wear resistance, and controllable electrical and thermal properties. “This could lead to a superior material for the external blankets of spacecraft,” says Eliaz, whose research has already been put to use by top biomedical device companies and by aircraft industries worldwide.
One candidate Eliaz and his colleagues have investigated is a hybrid nanomaterial which incorporates small silicon-containing cages that can open and react with atomic oxygen to prevent further polymer degradation.
The team has conducted space durability studies on polymers developed by the U.S. Air Force and Hybrid Plastics Inc, and the results are being reviewed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). “Our simulation studies were done on Earth to determine how space debris will impact new polymers developed to protect space vehicles,” says Dr. Eliaz.
The U.S. Department of Defense recently asked Dr. Eliaz to advise them on alternatives to hard chromium plating. Now used in aircraft landing gears, chromium VI is a carcinogen, causing agencies to limit or prohibit its use.
When we make outer space more accessible we will be able to take serious steps towards cleaning up our planet more effectively and more efficiently.
See also: Shocking image of space junk orbiting Earth.