Can Nanotechnology Help Space Technology?

By Vinayak R Adkoli, is B.E. In Industrial Production. He has served as lecturer in mechanical department for ten years in three different polytechnics. He is also a freelance writer and cartoonist.

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Nanotechnology may hold a key role in making space travel more practical. Advancement in nanomaterials will lead to the development of lightweight solar space vehicles. By significantly reducing the amount of rocket fuel required, these advancements may lead to lowering the cost of reaching orbit and traveling in space. In addition, nanosensors and nanorobots could improve the performance of spaceships, space suits and the equipment used to explore planets and moon.

Entry of nanotechnology in space technology

Researchers are now looking into employing materials made from carbon nanotubes to reduce the weight of spaceships while retaining or even increasing structural strength.

These carbon nanotubes can be used to make the cable needed for a space elevator. This space elevator can significantly reduce the cost of sending materials into orbit. This idea sounds good and nano carbon tubes certainly likely to give more intelligence and control for space technology.

Robots can perform well even in space technology. They are designed to handle the weather and tough terrains in space and can carry weight. They can repair damaged parts of the International space station by remotely operating by technologists from earth. But there are many new ideas coming into play when nanorobots began to work in space technology.

Bio – nanorobots are greatly employed in space suits. These can respond to damages to space suits. This bio – nanorobots can even respond if the astronaut is in trouble. For example, they can provide drugs in a medical emergency.

Design, manufacturing, programming, and control of nanoscale robots for space applications may take place massively in the upcoming years. Nanorobots are smart structures capable of actuation, sensing, signaling, information processing, intelligence and swarm behaviour at the nanoscale.

Nanorobots are invisible to the naked eye, which makes it difficult to manufacture it. Techniques like Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) are being used to understand the molecular structure of these nanorobots. Virtual Reality is also great being used in the manufacture of bio – nanorobot. Bio -nanorobotics makes use of nanotechnology combined with important discoveries in molecular biology.

In such robots, proteins, DNA could act as motors, mechanical joints, transmission elements or sensors. In space applications, these are mainly used in NTXp ( Networked Terra Xploring) and ATB (All Terrain Xploring) situations. These bio – nanorobots can protect astronauts from chemicals, radiations, temperature and pressure in space.

The network of nanosensors is required to search large areas of planets such as Maars for traces of water or other chemicals. For interplanetary missions, thruster systems are required. Use of nanoparticles could reduce the weight and complexity of such thruster systems.

Propulsion systems

Most of the rocket engines today relay on chemical propulsion. Rocket scientists are actively researching new methods of space propulsion systems to increase efficiency.

One such new alternative is Electric Propulsion (EP). This includes a better version of Field Emission Thrusters (FETs). EP systems can significantly reduce propellant mass compared to conventional chemical rockets.NASA ‘ s Deep Space Project, Japan’s HAYABUSA are dependent on the EP system only.

Radiation shielding

This is another area where nano technology can greatly contribute. Long duration space missions are currently not possible because of risk that astronauts are greatly exposed to space radiation. Advanced nano materials such as newly developed isotopically enriched boron nanotubes could provide better radiation shielding in future space crafts. These come with integrated nanosensor hulls.

Even on board electronics in space crafts need greater protection from space radiation. As the dimensions of electronic devices are reduced, they become more radiation tolerant. For example, quantum dot electronic devices can be tens or a hundred times more radiation tolerant than conventional bulk space electronic devices.

Space instrumentation

It mainly includes:

  • X-ray telescope.
  • High-resolution X-ray spectrometers.
  • Magnetosperic imagers.
  • Instruments for solar physics.

MIT presently adopting following technologies to develop better high – performance nano space instrumentation.

They are:

  • Nano fabrication.
  • Advanced lithology.
  • Precision engineering technology.

Nanotechnology and space technology have been around in the world for over a decade, and have been growing steadily and slowly. However, in recent times, the integration of these two fields boosted the space technology alarmingly. First of all, developments in the field of nano materials, nano sensors and nano instruments, have vastly reduced size, weight and increased precision and quality of launching vehicle, satellites and space crafts. Information Technology, especially the cloud, can improve dramatically due to nano satellites.

Advantages

  • Total resources required are reduced.
  • A simple overall system can be obtained by the effective integration of micro components.
  • Lowers unot cost.
  • Provides high system reliability.
  • Provides advantage of small test facilities.

Doing communication with nanosatellites

The commercial space industry slowly becoming behaving like the 20th century computer revolution. Just 30 years ago, access to a computer was limited and expensive. Today computers are inexpensive and are for everyone. Likewise, space technology is undergoing a potentially more dramatic transformation. Access to space today is widely expensive, and limited to governments and a few large corporations. Now nanosatellites and companies like SkyBox are transforming space access, making it less expensive and thus radically altering the society.

Nanosatellites are surprisingly tiny ( as small as 10 cubic centimeters), cost less than a dollar 1 million to build and launch into space, and are more available to everyone. The first kickstarter.com satellite project in early 2012 aimed to collect data and pictures from space.

ArduSat.org which is a two community funded project also put a nanosatellite in space. These nanosatellites provide inexpensive access for entertainment, education, convenience and variety of other applications. Nanosatellites are bringing space into everyday life.

Nanotechnology playing a key role in space technology in Asia – Pacific region

The Space Technology Working Group (STWG) aims to support space technology development in the Asia -Pacific region by

  • Active information exchange.
  • Corporation seeking.
  • Providing opportunities to experts from space agencies, academic institutions and private sectors in the region.

It mainly aims in developing nanosatellites ( also called small, microsatellites) for engineering management. These satellites provide more practical applications for space programs such as monitoring, reduction and removal of space debris for risk mitigation and to provide better launch environment.

European Union lead QB 50 project is another ambitious project in nanosatellite line. It involves cooperative efforts by universities and research institutes in 23 nations. Asian nations involved in this project include South Korea, Taiwan and to a certain extent China. The first group of 28 QB50 nano satellites will take soundings in the largely unmeasured lower atmosphere, between 200 km and 380 km above the earth.

Recently billionaire space enthusiasts such as Elon Mask, founder of Tesla car company, have joined space race with their own rocket. Globally the space business is forecast to reach 400 billion pounds ( dollar 495 billion) by 2030. Cube satellites are slowly exploding and mushrooming. Cube satellites can compete with nano – satellites.

In QB50 project nanosatellites will carry the following devices or sensors :

  • Multi needle Langmuir Probe.
  • Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS).
  • Flux -probe.

All of these are designed to gauge densities in Earth’s lower thermo sphere. The frame of nanosatellite is usually made out of Alluminium and usually machined. Instead, 3-D printed thermoplastic based frame can also be used. This frame is coated with Nickel for conductivity, which gives it light weight and strong structure. Today nanosatellites can carry a range of scientific instruments, cameras and sensors.

In 2011, China has successfully launched two scientific nano satellites. A ‘Long March II C ‘ rocket carried ‘Nano satellite I ‘ which weighted 25 kg and ‘Experimental Satellite I ‘ weighing 204 kg. This successful launch has made China the fourth country in the world that is capable of launching nano – satellites after Russia, the US, and Britain.

Singapore is mainly aiming to launch microsatellites to equatorial orbits. This is mainly because it will result in a significant reduction in cost for operators seeking a global network with 24/7 coverage. One potential use of such a network is to enable a nation-wide network of sensors for autonomous vehicles.

Finally

NASA has included a concept of self-healing spaceships in their 2030 nanotechnology space mission. Just as our skin heals from small wounds and injuries, the nanostructural components of these space crafts heal from damages caused by meteors that strike the spaceship.

Miniaturisation is proceeding at a very fast rate in space innovation. High-level miniaturization may be achieved by applying nano / micro technologies. Integration of micro/ nanoelectronics with peripherals and micromechanics will result in devices called Application Specific Integrated Micro Instruments (ASIMI).

Nanomachines can compute really fast and make critical decisions in the future. So these can become better, faster and more reliable in space in coming years.


References

1) www.understandingnano.com
2) www.nanowerk.com
3) An article on nano satellites by Peter Platzer appeared in www.forbes.com
4) Several other web pages are referred to in writing this article.

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