Graphene takes flight test for future space missions

Graphene’s suitability for space missions is being investigated following a launch of the material into the stratosphere by a multinational team.

space missions
A team from NUS CA2DM coated a single layer of graphene on a substrate, and the experiment was placed in the payload enclosure of the ‘Wayfinder – Mini’ CubeSat (Photo: Boreal Space)

The Centre for Advanced Two-Dimensional Materials (CA2DM) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) teamed up with US-based aerospace company Boreal Space to conduct the flight.

“Graphene’s usefulness on Earth has already been established in the last decade. It is now an opportune time to expand its prospects for use in space applications – an area touted as being the most challenging to modern technology – and shift the paradigm of materials science. Space is the final frontier for graphene research, and I believe this is the first time that graphene has entered the stratosphere,” said project leader Prof Antonio Castro Neto, director of NUS CA2DM.

Researchers recognise that graphene has potential for space missions due its flexibility and strength, but practical uses for the material have yet to be established.

“To move a spacecraft over long distances in space, huge accelerations and speeds which are only possible with very low mass equipment are needed. Graphene is the ideal material as it is among the lightest, yet strongest, functional materials we have. In addition, the high electronic performance of graphene makes it a prime candidate to handle the lack of oxygen and low temperatures in space,” said Prof Castro Neto.

To put graphene’s versatility to the test, a team led by Prof Barbaros Özyilmaz, head of Graphene Research at NUS CA2DM, prepared the material by coating a substrate with a single layer of graphene which was about 0.5nm thick. The sample was securely assembled within a Boreal Space ‘Wayfinder – Mini’ CubeSat, and placed in the payload enclosure of the sounding rocket.

The spacecraft was launched on 30 June 2018 and sent into the suborbital environment where the sample was subjected to rapid acceleration, vibration, acoustic shock, and strong pressure and temperature fluctuations. The sample re-entered Earth’s atmosphere after a 71-second flight, parachuting to a landing in the Mojave Desert.

The NUS CA2DM team is now carrying out tests to assess if the material’s structural properties and stability were affected during the launch and landing. In particular, the team will utilise Raman spectroscopy techniques to detect the presence of defects in the sample.

“If this research collaboration is able to demonstrate that graphene maintains its various properties and features after being launched into suborbital environment, it will open up exciting new opportunities for graphene to be incorporated into technologies suitable for outer space and aerospace missions. Such technologies can include electro-magnetic shielding, efficient solar power generation, and excellent thermal protection,” said Prof Castro Neto.

Barbara Plante, president of Boreal Space, added, “We are very excited about raising the technology readiness level of graphene and promoting its utility in space. I am convinced that graphene will play an extremely important role in space commercialisation. This and future launches support the demonstration of future uses of graphene-based technology in space.”

In addition to the NUS graphene experiment, the Boreal Space ‘Wayfinder – Mini’ CubeSat also hosted Gallium Nitride magnetic field sensors provided by Stanford University’s Extreme Environments Lab (XLab). The Stanford team is looking to obtain important experimental data – such as launch load survival and electronics signal integrity – and insights into magnetic interference, noise reduction and radiation effects on their sensors.