Work begins on materials to protect spacecraft

New materials are being developed to help protect European Space Agency astronauts and spacecraft from damage by radiation, space junk and micrometeoroids.

To protect spacecraft, satellites and crews from these dangers, Leicester-based engineering company Magna Parva is looking at developing FML (Fibre Metal Laminate) materials that have the ability to provide more protection per kilogram than anything that is currently on the market.

Owing to the needs of the space industry, any new material developed must be both lightweight and low cost. At least 15 concepts are being considered, including aluminium, titanium and polymers reinforced with a material such as glass fibre, carbon fibre or Kevlar.

Spacecraft in orbit around the Earth continually sustain damage from hyper velocity impacts, colliding with micrometeoroids and tiny fragments of orbiting debris left over from previous launches and missions.

However, although small, these objects are travelling at a velocity several times the speed of a bullet. Over time, the impacts can cause abrasions similar to an object having been sandblasted, as well as microscopic holes. There are also some larger objects in orbit, which have the potential to create catastrophic damage.

Not only must shielding for spacecraft protect against impacts, it must also shield astronauts from radiation received from energetic particles originating from our sun and supernova explosions and other high-energy events outside the solar system. Outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, these can harm both sensitive electronics and the astronauts themselves.

‘The materials we develop in this contract will be particularly useful in deep space missions such as those planned for the Orion capsule,’ said Magna Parva’s director Andrew Bowyer.