Student Features

Future Spaceships

Imagine a car that goes 500 miles per hour and can travel about 10,000 miles before it has to be refueled. It weighs only a few hundred pounds, repairs itself, and costs less than other cars. It might be hard to imagine a car that much better than other cars. But, NASA is trying to make a spaceship that is much better than other ships.

Advanced materials will be essential for making dramatically improved spacecraft like this one possible.
New materials will be required for making improved spacecraft.

If we look at the things we need for our super spaceship, there seems to be one that is the most important. The spacecraft has to be as light as it can be. Weight costs money!

A new discovery might allow spacecraft to be lighter.

Tensile Strength Comparison Graph
The tensile strength of carbon nanotubes than any of the other high-strength materials.

Imagine something that is stronger than steel but also weighs less. A new material called a "carbon nanotube" might be the answer to the weight problem of building a super spaceship. This material is 600 times stronger than steel.

One of the big problems with space travel is the radiation that's in space. On Earth, our atmosphere protects us from radiation. In space, however, astronauts need protection against harmful rays.

You might think that the metal on a spaceship is the answer. But, metals are the worst for shielding against very dangerous space rays. These rays are made of little pieces called ions. At very high speeds, the ions can be like little cannon balls, streaking through space. When these little cannon balls hit metals, they can break an atom and cause another type of ray to form. These new rays can be worse than the radiation the metal skins were supposed to stop.

You see why it is so important to block out these rays.

When cosmic rays crash into astronauts' DNA, it can cause damage leading to cancers or other radiation-induced illnesses.

But, we could use carbon nanotubes to make the skins of spacecraft. Nanotubes look a little like chicken wire that is too small to see.

Things that are light in weight seem to work the best against these cannon ball ions. When the rays hit lighter things, very little new radiation is made. The rays are stopped outside the spacecraft and new rays aren't made.

We have said our super spaceship needs to be able to repair itself. This might really be possible. Humans can feel the smallest pinpricks because of tiny sensors that send signals to our brains. Tiny sensors like ours, could be in the new ships. Each sensor could send messages to the computer 'brain' of the spacecraft. If something needed to be fixed, the computer could tell the ship to do it.

Sensing material Just as amazing as a car would be to someone 200 years ago, our nanotube spaceship might seem to us. We might actually be on the edge of making the spacecraft of tomorrow, using the technology of today.

Image to right: This new material, developed at NASA's Langley Research Center (LaRC), can "feel" problems, then send a signal to a central computer.

Courtesy of
Rosemary Wilson