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University of Bristol Developing Self-healing Spacecraft

Spacecraft in Earth orbit face a harsh environment. Wide temperature swings can cause small cracks to develop in the spacecraft. Impact by high-speed dust-sized micrometeoroids damage the surface of the spacecraft. Until now, there was no way a spacecraft could avoid this damage.

Engineers in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol, UK, may have discovered a way to allow a spacecraft to heal itself. The study was funded by the European Space Agency's (ESA) General Studies Program. Dr. Christopher Semprimoschnig, a materials scientist at ESA+s European Space Technology Research Centre (ESTRC) explained, "When we cut ourselves we don't have to glue ourselves back together, instead we have a self-healing mechanism. Our blood hardens to form a protective seal for new skin to form underneath."

Dr. Semprimoschnig and the team at Bristol came up with a way to replicate the human process of healing by replacing a small percentage of the fibers running through a resinous composite material with easily breakable hollow fibers made of glass and containing adhesive materials.

"When damage occurs, the fibers must break easily otherwise they cannot release the liquids to fill the cracks and perform the repair," Semprimoschnig said.

Don't look for this technology to appear in spacecraft soon. "We have taken the first step but there is at least a decade to go before this technology finds its way onto a spacecraft," said Semprimoschnig.

An ESA news release Spacecraft, heal thyself concluded that self-healing spacecraft could open the way for longer missions. Doubling the lifespan of a spacecraft would roughly cut the cost of the mission in half. Also, longer spacecraft life could extend the distance that could be traveled without undue risk. This technology promises to open up a new era of spacecraft reliability with benefits both in scientific data collection and in telecommunications.