NASA invests in ultra-lightweight spacecraft material

NASA believes it can make the biggest progress in space exploration if it reduces the weight of its spacecrafts, and has thus backed three advanced technologies to create extraordinarily lightweight materials.

The Agency announced its selection of three proposals that will develop and manufacture these materials "for future aerospace vehicles and structures.”

These technologies will help develop and manufacture ultra-lightweight (ULW) materials which will reduce the mass of a spacecraft by 40 per cent.

Phase I awards of the solicitation are valued up to $550,000, (£368,348) providing awardees with funding for 13 months to produce 12-by-12-by1-inch ULW core panels.

Technologies selected to continue to Phase II will demonstrate the ability to scale up to 2-feet by 2-feet by 1-inch and ultimately to produce 10-feet by 11-feet by 1-inch ULW core panels, with NASA providing up to $2 million (£1.34 million) per award for up to 18 months.

NASA said these materials, which would be used for future aerospace vehicles and structures, would be essential for future journeys to Mars and beyond.

Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement: “Lightweight and multifunctional materials and structures are one of NASA's top focus areas capable of having the greatest impact on future NASA missions in human and robotic exploration,” The Institution of Engineering and Technology reports.

“These advanced technologies are necessary for us to be able to launch stronger, yet lighter, spacecraft and components as we look to explore an asteroid and eventually Mars.”

Composite sandwich structures are a special type of material made by attaching two thin skins to a lightweight core. Traditional composite sandwich structures incorporate either honeycomb or foam cores.

This type of composite is used extensively within the aerospace industry and in other applications making it possible for future journeys to Mars. The ULW materials being developed by NASA vary significantly from traditional cores and are expected to result in a significant decrease in mass.