Editorial Feature

Materials Testing in Space

Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

Public and private companies are trying to discover what happens to materials in space, in an attempt to gain an insight into both.


One example is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Materials on the International Space Station Experiment (MISSE). The project is series of experiments on the Space Station designed to assess the long-term exposure of various materials to space conditions.

Specifically, it assesses the impacts of the space environment, such as solar radiation, atomic oxygen, micrometeorites and extreme heat and cold, on materials including advanced solar cells, spacecraft materials, and lightweight computing devices. The experiments provide a better understanding of material durability, from coatings to electronic sensors, which could be applied to future spacecraft designs. The investigations can also lead to improved fire-retardant and rust-resistant materials on Earth.

From 2001 to 2005 alone 750 material samples were tested in space. Through work with privately held SpaceX and its Dragon capsule, in 2014 the most recent sample data was collected from MISSE-8. Several companies and other governmental agencies were used to assess to 96 experiments of samples, including thermal control coatings, heat shield materials, solar array materials and environmentally friendly spacecraft components, such as multi-layer insulation, paint markings, and innovative polymers.

The Discoveries

One finding from this was that atomic oxygen in the low earth orbit is corrosive to plastics and some metals. According to NASA, information has been gathered from the MISSE experiments regarding advanced materials that could improve the performance of advanced reusable launch systems and advanced spacecraft systems including: solar cells, optics, sensors, electronics, power, coatings, structural materials and protection for the next generation of spacecraft.

Privately owned Alpha Space created the MISSE flight facility with a payload container affixed on the space station so that one side faces the Earth and the other faces space. The modular design allows components to be removed or added, similarly to a data collection system. High-resolution cameras let investigators observe experiments’ effects. According to Alpha Space, the effects are observed to assess three primary criteria: material performance, stability, and/or long-term survivability.

Image Credit: NASA

Alpha states that it is not just the aeronautics industry that wants to perform these experiments; from advanced manufacturing and automotive to transportation.

Some of this information from MISSE can be fed into standards on aerospace design and materials that are published by the American Society of the International Association for Testing and Material (ASTM), an international organization founded in 1898 that produces voluntary standards, including those for materials, products, services and systems.

Future Tests

Other material testing and applications are being explored by private companies including Planetary Resources whose primary aim surrounds the extraction of useful materials including water from asteroids. In January 2016 the company created the first-ever 3D printed invention derived from an asteroid. Composed mainly of iron, nickel, and cobalt, the materials were sourced from an asteroid site known as Campo Del Cielo near Argentina.

Another company involved in exploration and harvesting is California-based startup Made In Space. In partnership with Lowe's they aim to launch a commercial 3D printer to ISS in 2016.

These companies were pleased that property rights are now being extended to space. At the end of 2015, President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 that grants rights to resources extracted from asteroids and other celestial bodies.

References and Further Reading

Materials Testing on the International Space Station

Materials International Space Station Experiment - 8 (MISSE-8) - 03.02.16

Aerospace Material Standards

Asteroid-Mining Company 3D-Prints Object from Space Rock Metals

About the Materials International Space Station Facility

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