NASA invests in ultra-lightweight tech for space missions

The space agency has backed three advanced technologies to develop and manufacture ultra-lightweight (ULW) materials in a bid to reduce the mass of spacecraft by 40 per cent for deep-space exploration.

The proposals for future aerospace vehicles and structures are expected to result in a significant decrease in mass that would be essential for a future journey to Mars, NASA said.

Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement: “Lightweight and multifunctional materials and structures are one of NASA's top focus areas capable of having the greatest impact on future NASA missions in human and robotic exploration.

“These advanced technologies are necessary for us to be able to launch stronger, yet lighter, spacecraft and components as we look to explore an asteroid and eventually Mars.”

Sandwich-structure composites – extensively used in the aerospace industry – will benefit from a revamp following the round of proposals to help reduce their mass.

Traditionally the structures incorporate either honeycomb or foam cores, but NASA said it wants to move away from these and develop ULW materials instead.

The first phase awarded $550,000 worth of funding for 13 months to produce 12 inch by 12 inch by 1 inch ULW core panels. Technologies selected to continue to the second phase will then have to scale up and ultimately produce 10 feet by 11 feet by 1 inch ULW core panels, with NASA providing up to $2m per award for up to 18 months.

The announcement comes after NASA’s recent selection of 12 Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships “to advance concept studies and technology development projects in areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites”.

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