Scientists wake up to danger of space litter

July 10th, 2008 - 3:57 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, July 10 (IANS) More than 50 years after man first forayed into space, scientists have woken up to an unusual problem - littering, and its consequences. The remains of dead satellites, spent rocket stages, paint flakes and coolant from nuclear-powered spaceships continue to litter our stratosphere - and they are orbiting the earth at breakneck speeds.

Space debris threaten the lives of astronauts and the launch of new satellites today, according to Noam Eliaz, who heads the Biomaterials and Corrosion Laboratory at Tel Aviv University.

An expert in materials science and engineering, Eliaz is working with a team at Soreq NRC to create and test new materials to make the heavens safer for satellites and astronauts alike.

The oldest “space junk” is the US satellite Vanguard I, launched in 1958.

“Space debris has become a major concern recently, since collisions with such debris at ultrahigh velocities could be a disaster for spacecraft that pass through Earth’s orbit,” warned Eliaz. “An impact could be catastrophic.”

The combined effects of other components in such an environment, atomic oxygen, for instance, might increase the damage. The researcher, a Rothschild scholar at MIT, is investigating new kinds of materials that could protect against such hazards.

Eliaz is developing nano-based materials with special mechanical properties, such as high strength and wear resistance, and controllable electrical and thermal properties.

“This could lead to a superior material for the external blankets of spacecraft,” said Eliaz, whose research has already been put to use by top biomedical device companies and by aircraft industries worldwide, reports Sciencealert.

One candidate Eliaz and his colleagues have investigated is a hybrid nanomaterial which incorporates small silicon-containing cages that can open and react with atomic oxygen to prevent further polymer degradation.

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