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Super-Black Coatings on a Mission

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

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Extremely black nano-based coatings will be hitching a ride on the International Space Station, launching six years of research into orbit for the first time.

Part of NASA's Materials Coating Experiment, the emerging super-black nanotechnology is designed to make spacecraft instruments more sensitive without enlarging their size.

"Though tested extensively in ground-based laboratories, the material has never flown in space," said John Hagopian, NASA Principal Investigator and an optics engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

The material is a thin, highly uniform coating of multi-walled nanotubes made of pure carbon about 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair, NASA explained.

NASA Coatings Material
NASA / Bill Squicciarini

The super black carbon-nanotube coating (shown in slot D) can absorb almost all errant light.

"The objective is to determine how well this coating survives the harsh space environment," said Hagopian, who led the technology's development.

Blocking Out Light

The coating has been under development for six years and is considered especially promising as a technology to reduce stray light, which can overwhelm faint signals that sensitive detectors are supposed to retrieve.

Here on Earth, lab testing has shown that the coating can absorb 99.5 percent of the light in the ultraviolet and visible bands and 99.8 percent in the longer or far-infrared bands.

The coating is able to absorb so much light because the nanotubes are mainly empty space, but also have carbon atoms to absorb the light and prevent it from reflecting off surfaces.

Developers have applied the black paint on baffles and other instrument components, but these techniques absorb only 90 to 96 percent of errant light, which greatly underperforms the carbon-nanotube coating, according to Hagopian.

Determining what extreme environmental conditions the coating can withstand will help further qualify the technology for potential use on space-based instruments.

NASA nanotechnology
NASA Goddard / Chris Gunn

The coatings will be tested in space for a year on a task board consisting of two trays with titanium discs coated with the carbon nanotubes.

"We've made great progress on the coating, developing and testing new ways to lay down the carbon-nanotube coating. We are focusing on making our coatings robust and not necessarily the blackest for now," Hagopian said.

Space Exposure

The experiment is taking place on the new task boards for NASA's Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM)-Phase 2. Two trays containing two titanium discs coated with the carbon nanotubes will be exposed to space for one year and then returned to Goddard for evaluation.

RRM-Phase 2 will test tools and techniques for on-orbit satellite servicing; the coatings experiment is unrelated to the mission's primary goal of testing the satellite servicing components.

"I'm just pleased that the demonstration had room for our samples," Hagopian said.

"What we lacked in our development program was access to space. Now we'll have that."

Over the course of its year in space, the coating will be exposed to harsh radiation and other elements, such as atomic oxygen that reacts with spacecraft materials and corrodes them, according to NASA.


Tagged categories: Nano and hybrid coatings; Nanotechnology; NASA; Research

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