How is nanotechnology used in space? We are currently exploring only a tiny fraction of its space capabilities as we study the development of newer, better space materials.
With materials like these we may be able to find ways of launching into orbit that don’t involve costly rockets (and their costly fuel.) Researchers are particularly excited about the possibilities for a space elevator.
Carbon nanotubes are the perfect choice for such an elevator’s cable, since nanotechnology is able to create carbon-based material that is light in weight yet strong enough to withstand the forces it would face in space.
A space elevator would make all kinds of pioneering efforts possible by dramatically reducing the cost of sending things into orbit.
This becomes painfully obvious when one considers that 95% of a space shuttle’s takeoff weight is entirely devoted to fuel storage.
Despite the amusing and whimsical idea of an elevator that reaches all the way into space, scientists are perfectly serious about this endeavor and have already anticipated such practicalities as how and where the two ends of its cable will be anchored, the Earth end will be affixed to a sea anchor that is similar to a drilling rig, and the space end of the cable will be attached to an asteroid.
The elevator cars would be powered by a laser on the Earth-side anchor station. Each car would be equipped with solar panels that could convert the laser’s light into energy that would then drive the car up the cable in much the same way that a monorail operates, except vertically.
Carbon nanotubes are also slated for use in the development of solar sails. These lightweight devices use the pressure of the sunlight’s reflection to push the spacecraft forward. They would solve the issue of having to pack extra rocket fuel aboard the craft before launch, making these new sails a very weight-restricting and cost-effective prospect.
With such sails at their disposal once in orbit, people would be able to travel almost fuel-free from the moon to distant planets and back (hypothetically.) Nanomaterials are perfect for this purpose because the sails will need to be thin yet extremely strong so that they can stretch for several kilometers without tearing.
Scientists are also hard at work on developing supplemental spacecraft material using carbon nanotubes, which has a double benefit: it can, by replacing parts of the spaceship that are traditionally heavier, make the craft lighter and easier to put into orbit (and therefore less expensive.) At the same time, these nanomaterials are often of a higher quality than those they are replacing, so the spacecraft actually becomes stronger as well as lighter.
Even the thrusters of the spacecraft may soon be composed of nanomaterial. Instead of traditional chemical rockets that consume costly rocket fuel and expel hot chemical gasses, these new engines would use MEMS devices to accelerate nanoparticles, thereby creating an electric field that would push ions away from the spaceship in order to propel itself.
This would dramatically simplify and lighten the standard thruster systems that NASA uses for missions between planets. One cost-effective benefit of this would be the universality of the modified thruster unit. Instead of having to build different thrusters for various sizes of spacecraft, NASA could simply use the same thruster system for all.
Even delicate technology could soon be regulated by nanoparticles. Nanosensors could potentially monitor the life support system inside a spaceship, ensuring that even trace chemicals and elements in the interior environment are at a safe level for passengers.
Researchers are also in the process of producing “bio-nano-machines” that essentially deploy a range of nanosensors that can perform a variety of functions.
Specifically, they might be used to conduct intensive searches of remote planets Mars will most likely be the first candidate and their main function will be to track and report trace amounts of water and other important chemicals so that the astronauts themselves have time for more important work.
Bio-nano robots could also provide vital help to astronauts in case of emergency. Scientists anticipate two types: an outer robot layer and an inner. The outer bio-nano robot layer would function separately from the astronaut’s spacesuit but possibly be stored as a part of the suit when not in use.
These robots could respond to dangerous spacesuit issues like tears or ruptures and fix them before they harm the astronaut. An inner layer of robots could administer directly to the astronaut himself, operating inside the spacesuit and tending wounds or administering medication.
Both waves of bio-nano robots would be extremely useful in protecting astronauts, since operating without such emergency considerations leaves them open to all kinds of dangers. Space debris is a common problem; it often flies at several hundred miles per hour (if not thousands) and even pea-sized particles travel fast enough to pass completely through an astronaut’s body at any location, just like a bullet. Bio-nano robots could save lives in such a situation.
Several institutions are now working on these possible technologies and their ramifications. The Center for Nanotechnology at NASA Ames is investigating how nanotechnology could be applied to make a spacecraft lighter and more cost-effective. One of their main considerations is how the craft’s various technological systems including sensors, propulsion, navigation, and communication could be improved on many levels using nanotechnology.
The Johnson Space Center Nano Materials Project is working on a similar collection of issues as they strive to produce an extremely lightweight spaceship.
The LiftPort Group is dedicated entirely to the production of the long-anticipated space elevator, with a target date of October 2031. Nanotechnology, in the form of carbon nanotubules, is the entire basis of their project.
MIT’s Space Nanotechnology Laboratory is using nanotechnology to develop unprecedented high-performance instruments that will greatly improve astronauts’ abilities on spaceflights.