As we’ve discovered, space planes look a bit like airplanes and have some things in common – like wings, tail fins and wheels!
Like aircraft technology, they are being built using the latest smart materials and technology.
For many years, spacecraft were made of metal – a good choice because it’s strong and robust. Aluminium and titanium have been popular metals to use as they’re tough but very light.
Weight is critical when building spacecraft as the heavier they are, the more energy is needed to break free of the Earth’s gravitational pull – and that means more fuel and cost.
Now, even thought these metals are lighter, they can’t compete with a very popular new material – carbon composite.
Carbon composite is the name given to a range of materials made from combining chemicals together.
They’re lighter and stronger than some metals – and can be more flexible.
Carbon composites have been around for a while. The first high-performance carbon fibres were made in 1958 in the US, but it was the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough here in the UK who developed a production process and patented it.
Modern aircraft manufacturers already use a lot of carbon composites in their new generation planes. So it’s a logical extension for space planes. Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo is the largest all-composite plane ever built, using woven fibres of glass graphite and aramid, bonded with epoxy resins.
Composite technology is making new discoveries all the time. A new type of ‘carbon nanotube’ promises a dramatic improvement in strength over existing composites – 600 times the strength of steel by weight compared to 3 or 4 times.
Getting down to this nano level – in fact, working with the molecules of materials like this – can result in even more amazing new discoveries…
Some recent technology developments are creating materials that are not only stronger and lighter, but can instantly heal themselves when punctured – and even be able to “feel” the forces pressing on them.
Just think, you and I can feel the slightest pinprick anywhere on our bodies as skin contains millions of microscopic nerve endings that carry messages to the brain.
Well, materials that make up critical systems on a spacecraft could be embedded with nanometer-scale sensors that constantly monitor the materials’ condition.
If a part starts to fail, these sensors could send messages using molecular wires to a central computer before something serious happens.
Nano-molecules in the materials could be instructed to react and repair any damage.
It’s not just the body of the spacecraft which are benefiting from new materials.
The way that bulky components like solar panels are made are also changing. New super thin and super light materials could be used as gigantic sails to help provide energy to the craft. They’d weigh less than a sheet of paper!
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