Nanotechnology in Space

In this article, Liam O’Brien from the University of Wollongong discusses the future of space exploration.
Nanotechnology is at the forefront of scientific development, as it continues to astound those involved. Likewise, the space industry is rapidly increasing in sophistication and competition, with companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic becoming increasingly prevalent in what could become a new commercial space race. The various space programs over the past 60 years have led to a multitude of beneficial impacts  for everyday society[1]. Nanotechnology, through research and development in space has the potential to do the same. Potential applications of nanotechnology in space are numerous, many of them have the potential to capture and inspire generations to come.
Figure 1.
One of these applications is the space elevator. By using carbon nanotubes, a super light yet strong material, this concept would be an actual physical structure from the surface of the Earth to an altitude of approximately 36 000 km. The tallest building in the world would fit into this elevator over 42 000 times. The counterweight, used to keep the elevator taught, is proposed to be an asteroid. This would need to be at a distance of 100 000 km[2], a quarter of the distance to the moon. The benefits of such a structure would be enormous. 95% of a space shuttle’s weight at take-off is fuel, costing US$20 000 per kilogram to send something into space[3]. However, with a space elevator the cost per kilogram can be reduced to as little as US$ 200. Exploration to other planets can begin at the tower, and travel to and from the moon could become as simple as a morning commute to work.
Figure 2.
Solar sails provide the means to travel large distances and incredible speeds. Much like sails on a boat use wind, the solar sail uses light as a source of propulsion. Ideally these sails would be kilometres in length and only a few micrometres in thickness. Providing us with the ability to travel at speeds unheard of before. Using carbon nanotubes once again, a solar sail has the capability to travel at 39 756 km/s which is 13% of the speed of light! This sail could reach Pluto in an astonishing 1.7 days, and Alpha Centauri in just 32 years[4]. Space travel to other planets, other stars, could be possible with solar sails. The Planetary Society is funding for a space sail of itself, and has successfully launched one into orbit. NASA has also sent a sail into orbit, allowing it to burn up in the atmosphere after 240 days.
Investing time and resources into nanotechnology for space exploration has benefits for society today. Materials such as graphene are being used in modern manufacturing at an increasing rate as the applications become utilised. Carbon nanotubes will change the way we think about materials and their strength. These nanotubes have a tensile strength one hundred times that of steel, yet are only a sixth of the weight[5]. Imagine light weight vehicles using less petrol and energy as well as being just as strong as regular vehicles.
With potentials to revolutionize the way we think about space travel, nanotechnology has a bright future. As a new field of science, it has the capability to push the human race to the outer reaches of our galaxy and hopefully one day to other stars. It will inspire generations of explorers and dreamers to challenge themselves and advance the human race into the next era.
As Richard Feynman said in his 1959 talk ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ “A field in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done.” There is still plenty more to achieve.

References:

1. Janelle Turner, 2008, NASA Technologies Benefit Our Lives, NASA, date viewed 29/08/15 <https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2008/tech_benefits.html>
2. Ben Shelef, 2008, The Space Elevator Feasibility Condition, The Spaceward Foundation Website, viewed 7/09/15 <http://www.spaceward.org >
3. Nanogloss, 2009, How is Nanotechnology used in space?, Introduction to Nanotechnology, viewed 15/08/15, <http://nanogloss.com/nanotechnology/how-is-nanotechnology-used-in-space/#axzz3ieDgy0u6>
4. Dean Spieth & Dr. Robert Zubrin, 1999, Ultra-Thin Solar Sails for Interstellar Travel, Pioneer Astronautics, Inc., viewed 30/08/15, <http://www.niac.usra.edu/files/studies/final_report/333Christensen.pdf>
5. Hongjie Dai, 2001, Carbon nanotubes: opportunities and challenges, Stanford University, viewed 5/09/15, <http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0039602801015588/1-s2.0-S0039602801015588-main.pdf?_tid=dd369268-5389-11e5-a42f-00000aab0f27&acdnat=1441428909_377fc9c0c70fb43d165630a0603586c1

Figure 1. Source: ABC News

Figure 2: (https://skepticalswedishscientists.files.wordpress.com)