Houston, we have a solution: Nanotech to help relaunch NASA

Dec. 15, 2003 — In two years, NASA will send astronauts into space to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope. The crew will install a wide-angle camera and spectrograph to observe ultraviolet radiation, sure to delight astronomers with new images. It will be among the first uses of nanotechnology in space.


In addition to the camera and spectrograph, astronauts will install a cooling system to help the main radiator draw heat away from the telescope. That system will connect to the radiator via a layer of carbon nanotubes, providing an excellent conductor for heat dissipation with just the delicate touch necessary not to jostle Hubble’s fragile mirrors.

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Meyya Meyyappan, director of NASA’s Ames Center for Nanotechnology, hopes it will be the first of many such milestones as the agency embraces nanotech’s potential. He foresees a day when small technology touches almost every facet of space exploration.


“We ultimately have to make everything very small,” says Meyyappan. “I mean, I can’t ask my astronaut to lose weight.”


Nanotech entrepreneurs should take heart — with a budget of $15.4 billion, NASA is willing to put its money on the line. The agency spent $52 million on nanotech-related work in 2003. The National Nanotechnology Initiative funded $36 million of that total; the rest came from various NASA operation centers investing their own dollars to gauge nanotech’s merits. The Ames Center alone has nearly 70 researchers, one of the largest single nanotechnology research efforts in the world.


What’s more, with recent talk in the Bush administration of rejuvenating NASA with new manned missions to the moon and eventually Mars, nanotech could step into the spotlight of expanded R&D efforts.


NASA’s three main realms for nanotechnology are sensors, new materials and micro-electronics. Meyyappan and others expect sensors to be the first applications widely used in space, yet even within that field sensors will be used to detect everything from heat to pressure to temperature to biological compounds.


“There are requirements that will be qualitatively different than what we have today,” said Minoo Dastoor, a senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory coordinating NASA’s nanobiotech research. “The technological needs are quite diverse.”


The Hubble Space Telescope mission addresses one of NASA’s most fundamental problems: heat dissipation. Instruments ideally should function in the cold, since that means less vibration from thermal energy, said Dan Powell, lead technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and manager of the Hubble’s nanotube project. Yet any side of a spacecraft facing the sun will heat up, and without an atmosphere that heat accumulates.


Powell and his colleagues originally considered a putty-like polymer as a conductor, layered between the main radiator and the secondary system. Nanotubes, however, dissipated twice as much heat energy with less contact pressure. Because of their small dimesions (about 30 micrometers long and 10 to 15 nanometers wide), more of them can fit onto the conductive layer and work more efficiently.


“The only way to do this is direct contact,” Powell said. “Carbon nanotubes presented the ideal solution.”


The Hubble’s nanotube arrays were developed by the Ames and Goddard centers. NASA officials stress, however, that outside businesses will be crucial in achieving their nanotech goals — particularly startup businesses, since much of the work is still in early development and too small for the likes of Raytheon, Boeing or other large contractors.


“Our needs are large. … Nobody can say they have everything they need,” said Meyyappan. “In the nano arena, it’s the small companies that stand out.”


NASA organizes its nanotech research along several lines. Basic research for all spaceflight is handled at the Ames Center and the Langley Research Center. The Goddard Center, and to a lesser extent the Marshall Space Flight Center, handle applied nanotech research for specific missions. All regularly work with outside businesses either through research announcements and grants, plus the occassional unsolicited proposal that shows promise.


NASA also wants to commercialize its research when appropriate. The Ames Center has a licensing office and has spun out three businesses since its founding in 1996, such as Integrated Nanosystems Inc. Ames officials realized the research team could work faster and more effectively as a business while boosting the vitality of the private sector, so they helped the team form a company, put them in touch with venture capitalists, and spun out INI in 2001.


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