Bristol researchers prepare their composites for lift-off to space

Materials developed by University of Bristol scientists and engineers with support from the National Composites Centre will be blasted 250 miles from the Earth’s surface and affixed to the International Space Station (ISS). 

The novel composites will spend six months attached to the SESAME module of the ISS, orbiting the Earth some 3,000 times at speeds of 17,000 mph. 

The materials are being placed on the ISS to test them in the fierce space environment, where they will be subjected to micro-meteoroids, temperatures from -150C to +150C, high velocity dust, severe electromagnetic radiation and engineering debris. 

Real-time data will assess how the materials are performing and will help scientists improve materials for the next generation of space missions. 

The tests will help University scientists on the ground improve the materials for future use. 

Ian Hamerton, Professor of Polymers and Composite Materials at the University of Bristol, has been spearheading the Bristol side of the mission. 

“This project will assess how our composites fare in the extreme space environment,” Ian explained. “The data we recover will be used to make a ‘digital twin’ of the physical material, which will help us understand how these materials – and indeed other materials – function. Not only will this improve the performance of our composites  but it will help us and others develop even more ambitious space materials.” 

The materials were developed using facilities within one of the University of Bristol’s specialist research institutes, the Bristol Composites Institute, with help from the National Composites Centre, based on the Bristol & Bath Science Park at Emersons Green. The NCC, one of seven centres of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, provided support in-kind to cure the panels and machine them ready for testing, pre-launch to the International Space Station. 

Stuart Donovan Holmes, Head of Defence and Space at the National Composites Centre, said: “The NCC is delighted to support this ground-breaking and exciting science experiment onboard the International Space Station to advance the use of composites in the space environment. This project is an excellent example of the strong relationship between the NCC and the University of Bristol, working together to ensure a quick turnaround on this exciting piece of work.”

The space-bound materials are part of the Euro Ageing programme, a £3.5m European Space Agency project which will see 45 materials exposed to the effects of space while encased in a chamber on the Bartolomeo platform especially designed for the ISS by Airbus. 

Places on the spring 2022 mission have been highly sought after and Ian and his team faced a five month, highly competitive tender process to get their materials accepted. 

The composites have been developed by two University of Bristol PhD students, Dr Yanjun (Desmond) He and Mayra Rivera Lopez, who recently won the People’s Choice Award at the annual 3MT (three minute thesis) competition, hosted by the Bristol Doctoral College. 

Ms Lopez said"The development and testing of our composites into real space conditions is a big step for us as researchers. Through this mission, we will assess the performance of our already resilient composites, but also, we will obtain a better perspective on ways to keep innovating the composites design." 

Dr He said: “The composites we developed has already been proven to show an excellent performance in a simulated space environment, while this project is able to push it further by examine our composites in a real space environment, which help us gaining a deeper insight on the design of composites for space applications.” 

The data will be especially useful for CoSEM CDT student George Worden, who will develop and use the ‘digital twin’ in his PhD programme to break new ground in the field of space materials – including the potential to create composites with self-healing properties.  

Financial support for the project has come from the UK Space Agency, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the University of Bristol. 

 

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