Using Nanotechnology For Space Exploration
Remember those sci-fi movies with nanotech and self-assembling robots. Well, those movies and shows just happen to be getting more “science” and less “fiction” as technology advances!
Since it’s crazy how fast we’re progressing in the field of nanotechnology and space, I wanted to share how we could use nanotechnology for space exploration.
So What is Nanotechnology?
Essentially Nanotechnology is working with things at the nanoscale. One nanometre is just one billionth of a metre. To get an idea of how small that is; a hair strand shrunk by 100,000 times is the size of a nanometer. Which is incredible just to think about!🤯
The fascinating thing about materials at the nanoscale is that they begin to exhibit weird and unique properties which can be very useful especially for space exploration. For instance, materials’ characteristics, such as their colour, strength, conductivity and reactivity, can differ substantially between the nanoscale and the macro. Nanomaterials such as Carbon nanotubes(something we’ll discuss later) are 100 times stronger than steel but six times lighter!
What Does This Have to Do With Space?
We are already seeing the potential of nanotechnology through extensive research into the production and use of carbon nanotubes, nano-phase materials and molecular electronics. For example, from computer simulations, and available experimental data, some specific forms of carbon nanotubes appear to possess extraordinary properties as I mentioned above.
Space exploration is a prime candidate to take advantage of nanotechnology. Current methods are expensive and risky, and in many ways, very inefficient. Check out the graph before it shows the millions spent on space missions, the satellites, and the costly investment of time needed for even the simplest endeavour.
Using nanotechnology we can:
- Built cheaper and smaller spacecraft
- Have better radiation shielding
- Exploring using nanobots/nanosensors
Building cheaper and smaller spacecraft
According to NASA: it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit. And that’s where nanotechnology comes in! By leveraging the properties of nanomaterials we can create lighter and stronger spacecraft. Carbon nanotubes are focusing the minds of space engineers and are expected to greatly enhance spacecraft.
But what are carbon nanotubes? Well, carbon nanotubes are cylinder-shaped molecules that consist of rolled-up sheets of single-layer carbon atoms. Moreover, these molecules are 100 times stronger than steel of the same diameter and can conduct electricity better than metal. It’s no surprise that carbon nanotubes will replace spacecraft components in the future.
Another major problem is propulsion- propulsion is one of the most significant challenges to developing fast and convenient space travel. There’s no doubt that what we have right now is truly amazing and capable of getting into orbit but our spacecraft aren’t capable of extended travel into space. All we do right now is launch a giant tube into space and that giant tube can’t go far. One solution is using solar sails and that’s where nanotechnology shows a lot of promise. Solar sails are large lightweight sheets that use light photons to propel spacecraft forward. Nanomaterials, specifically carbon nanotubes, fit these requirements. They can be a great alternative to the aluminum and polymer sheets.
Furthermore, scientists are working on creating nanomaterials that can have self-repairing properties. I know, a spaceship that heals itself seems like a thing straight out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s real and we could see it used in the not so distant future. NASA has been experimenting with a new material that can patch itself up within a matter of seconds. It’s not quite “Terminator” level self-healing tech, but it could be the thing that saves a crew in a hull breach.
Space radiation is not the same as it is on Earth. it’s comprised of atoms in which electrons have been stripped away as the atom accelerated in space to speeds approaching the speed of light — eventually, only the nucleus of the atom remains.
Basically, It’s dangerous. 💀
Human tissue and electronic component protection from the harmful effects of space radiation is essential for extended deep space exploration voyages. Radiation shielding is another area where nanotechnology could make a major contribution.
NASA says that the risks of exposure to space radiation are the most significant factor limiting humans’ ability to participate in long-duration space missions. One solution for this problem is to use BNNTs compounded of isotope 10B(boron with 10 neutrons). This nanomaterial inhibits properties making it ideal for protection against cosmic radiation. Another material of interest is nanotubes containing hydrogen since the hydrogen content in the material can improve the radiation-shielding effectiveness against space radiation including solar particle events.
Using Nanobots and Nanosensors for Space Exploration
Exploring space with a swarm of nanobots is another popular application of nanotech in space. These robots can be very small and grouped to create autonomous nanotechnology swarms (ANTS).
Nanobots can effectively cover more ground and explore at much faster rates. For example, imagine a mars rover deploying hundreds of small bots with nanosensors to scan the environment.
A team from Northeastern University has been researching possible concepts for using nanotech in space. They recently proposed the idea of a sensor net “spider web” comprised of hairline tubes that could be deployed to spread across large areas of a planet’s surface. The tubes would contain multiple nanosensors to measure many things such as surface temperature, chemical composition and other elements of the planetary environment.
However, the idea of sending thousands of bots into space is easy to come up with but hard to implement. Out of the three applications I talked about this one would be the hardest to put into practice and there are a lot of variables and dangers to take into consideration. Nonetheless, it’s still possible, maybe not soon but sometime in the future 🚀
Overall, nanotech and nanorobotics look extremely promising for applications in space exploration and colonization.
- We can use nanotechnology to make stronger and lighter spacecraft components
- Nanomaterials can protect us and equipment from cosmic radiation
- Nanobots can be a more efficient space exploration method in the future
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