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The new Space Race and how it is leveraging new technologies to push boundaries

2019 has seemingly marked a point in human evolution where we have decided to once again explore our heavens (perhaps it’s a subconscious attempt to distract us from the mess we’re making of our own planet). Never before have we witnessed so many different initiatives to get into the Great Unknown; the US have re-ignited their space program with a vengeance; the Chinese have successfully reached the dark side of the moon; and Russia are actively launching rockets to reach who-knows-where. At present, seventy-two countries have registered space programs (although it should be said only the three countries listed above are officially ‘active’).

Then we can add in the growing private sector. Elon Musk’s SpaceX initiative is the real deal, having managed to launch and land a rocket – admittedly after a couple of issues – but Mr Innovation is making NASA look very last century. The consumer space travel market is also accelerating, with the likes of Virgin boss Richard Branson continuing with Virgin Galactic, the (initially ill-fated) space bus for billionaires.

So space is suddenly ‘hip’ again, after decades of indifference from the world’s biggest governments. But why now? Well one obvious answer is technology. Not simply the huge increase in computer processing power, or more efficient fuels, or advances in the core materials needed for space flight. All of those are critical components, but the biggest leap forward has been the ability to both create and deliver new types of materials that are produced using cutting edge Additive Manufacturing (AM), or 3D Printing.

The space industry has two key things that lend themselves well to the use of AM; an openness to collaborate with new technology partners, and the lack of a mass-production requirement, something which the AM sector has struggles with due to the high cost of the hardware needed to deliver large scale items.

In recent years there has been a veritable explosion of funding for AM companies, many of which are focusing their efforts on perfecting the use of 3D Printing across a myriad of materials. In the US alone there has been over $1.1billion invested in 2017/18, and it’s already at $400million this year.* It appears the money is being well spent, as ‘traditional’ AM-based materials such as plastics are starting to decline in growth vs metals and ceramics. The resins used for the production of parts within industries as diverse as Automotive and Pharmaceuticals are in constant development and are seemingly able to finally deliver the levels of innovation promised when 3D Printing became a ‘thing’ a few years back. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed in the space sector. NASA are increasing investment in specialist AM research, with a focus on improving the development of their liquid-fuel rocket engines.**

The other area of innovation that often gets overlooked, but is no less important, is that of coatings. Ever since Apollo 11 changed our view of the universe forever, specialist coatings have been used to ensure the safety and performance of man-made structures leaving our atmosphere. Space travel brings with it unique challenges that, without the use of coatings, would render any space program earth-bound. Anti-reflective, UV to IR filtering, thermal control through extreme temperature differentials and radiation, retention of integrity under duress (micro-meteorite impacts are very common in space) – these are just some of the attributes required of a coating used in many parts of a space-bound vehicle.

Many of the world’s leading chemical companies continue to fund research into developing coating technology further, and no more is this apparent than in the area of nanotechnology. Gaining a fuller understanding of how certain nanoparticles behave when placed within specific compounds is a huge area of attention. One key challenge is to produce a coating – or a compound that can be added to an existing coating – that demonstrates different or multiple characteristics depending on the requirement.

There are great examples of compounds / coatings that do certain jobs extremely well, whether that is easy clean, anti-reflective, anti-soiling etc., but there are few that can be used to ‘tune’ a coating to the users needs. However that may be about to change. A UK based consortium, led by Opus Materials Technologies and TWI Cambridge, have developed a set of silica nanoparticles called SMS ( Stober Methylated Silica) under the brand name Sharc Matter, that can be added to coatings and resins in order to change the characteristics depending on the need. As a result, they are working with different industries such as the AM sector in order to develop advanced materials that could drastically increase performance and reduce cost – two things critically important to the advancement of space research and our desire to explore the final frontier.