(Aerospace Technology) Building and maintaining a spacecraft is one of the most impressive technological feats of the entire history of human life.
Not only do these machines leave Earth’s orbit and travel to other planets, but many of them also have to keep humans alive inside them at the same time. The design and engineering used to make this happen are, quite frankly, phenomenal.
All of this starts with the right materials. These materials need to be able to withstand all kinds of hostile environmental conditions, whilst protecting the astronauts and holding their structure perfectly.
In this article, you’ll find out all about some of the materials used to build spacecraft, along with why they are used and how they manage to survive such an intense environment.
If you have an interest in aerospace technology, read on to find out more.
The Hostile Conditions of Space
First, it’s important to understand what the hostile conditions are up there and what it is these materials are up against.
The first and maybe most obvious one is the extreme temperature changes. Down here on our planet, the average temperature is around 15 degrees celsius.
As soon as a spacecraft leaves the atmosphere, it is faced with a drop of almost 300 degrees! Upon reentry, temperatures can reach over 1400 celsius!
So, these materials need to be able to deal with immense spikes in temperatures without fracturing, cracking, or otherwise disintegrating, whilst also maintaining the interior atmosphere to ensure the astronauts are safe Aerospace Technology.
Alongside the temperature shifts, there is also a huge increase in radiation upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere. The O-Zone layer protects life on Earth from the intense radiation from the sun, however, as soon as a spacecraft leaves the atmosphere, this protection is gone.
There are also huge risks of solar flares or storms when in orbit around Earth or any other planet, so these materials need to be fully prepared for any level of radiation that may come their way.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are also extreme changes of pressure and intense vibrations to deal with when a spacecraft takes flight or enters/leaves the atmosphere.
This means parts are often shaken or pushed at extreme G-force levels, so they need to be strong enough yet malleable enough to withstand these forces.
All in all, there’s a hell of a lot for each type of material and the team of specialist engineers to deal with for each component.
The first thing on the list may not be what you were initially assuming – plastic! Plastics are used in all sorts of structural and mechanical components of aerospace parts.
With Vespel plastic machining, plastics are made to withstand extreme heat, expanding, shrinking, and pressure changes.
They are formed at extremely high heat and can therefore withstand everything space flight has to throw at them.
These types of plastics are often used in component parts like o-rings, gaskets, piston rings, or air-tight seals. Without well-machined plastic, astronauts certainly could not survive in space – or even make it their Aerospace Technology.
You may well have heard of Kevlar for its bulletproof properties, as it is often used in police vests, helmets, and other protective clothing items.
However, it is also extremely suited to a variety of uses within the aerospace industry. Due to this already noted high strength, kevlar makes for an extremely good protective layer on spacecraft and craft components.
There is always a risk of collision with meteors or space junk, so kevlar is there to protect the craft and its inhabitants from impacts Aerospace Technology.
This, combined with its lightweight nature and resistance to extreme temperature changes, makes it the perfect material for aerospace construction all over the craft.
Carbon is also a material you’ve probably heard a lot about, with carbon fiber cars, bicycles, and more. Known again for its lighter weight, great durability, and extreme strength, carbon composites can be found all over aerospace design.
Reinforced carbon composites (RCC) have been used to help with the extreme heat experienced by spacecraft on reentry to Earth’s atmosphere.
It can expand slightly, whilst absorbing and then dissipating heat. So, not only does it help in preventing the rest of the ship from burning up, but it also helps cool the ship down rapidly after reentry.
Aluminum itself is not as strong as kevlar or composites of carbon, however, it does still have its uses in the design of space ships.
Alloys created from aluminum usually retain aluminum’s lightweight properties whilst also becoming nice and strong.
This makes them useful for impact protection, like kevlar. NASA often uses alloys for window protection and to protect other very important parts of their rockets Aerospace Technology.
You’ll find thermal glass in two different areas of the spaceship. Firstly, the windows. As mentioned, the temperature in space tends to be around 2-300 degrees Celsius colder than it is on the surface of our planet.
It goes without saying that you need windows that can protect the astronauts from these temperatures but also allow them to see out into space. This is where the engineered thermal glass comes into play.
There is another use for thermal glass, too. Believe it or not, a huge portion of the reusable reentry surface insulation found around the bottom of a space shuttle is also formed of glass.
This durable, black glass can withstand the same level of temperatures as the previously noted carbon composites – up to 1300 celsius!
For this reason, it’s a vital component when it comes to designing the protective layers that will keep the astronauts alive and well during their harsh, extreme re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere Aerospace Technology.
These are just a few of the thousands of materials, components, composites, and other items used to create, build, and maintain a modern-day spacecraft.
It takes years of design and planning, alongside extremely rigorous testing, to make sure that these materials can withstand the test of leaving the planet and returning safely.
With constant advances in science and technology, who knows what materials may be on the next generation of manned spacecraft.