“A Cheaper Way to Stock up in Space”
by Lakshmi Chandrasekaran
Astronomy, October 4, 2017
A cheaper way to stock up in space
A NASA mission is sponsoring undergraduate research to test space-based manufacturing
If we’re going to go to Mars – and that may not be far off, with Space X founder Elon Musk in the running – we’d better be ready to produce essential materials we need when we get there.
Given that it takes nearly 300 days to reach Mars from the Earth, imagine the time, the number of trips and the weight of materials to be carried to sustain even a small community. As for the costs of such deliveries, let us not even go there. Could an interesting alternative be to figure out how to build houses or make fuel cells on Mars, a la Matt Damon style in “The Martian”?
Tackling the challenge is an undergraduate research team at Northwestern University. Meet SpaceICE – a collaborative research endeavor where NU undergraduates plan to launch a pioneering manufacturing experiment called freeze-casting into space. A small cubic satellite – a CubeSat – is being assembled with teams at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Bradley University for a 2018 NASA mission.
Freeze-casting is a unique technique that is cheap and scalable. It starts by dissolving any metal or alloy particles in water. This suspension is frozen from the bottom, which results in ice crystals forming at the base and growing upwards while pushing the metal particles out of the way and packing them into a fragile material left behind when the ice is vaporized off. The material is then baked with heat to bind it together, producing porous sheets of “foam.” Just to underscore the point – the new material was manufactured using water. Simple, non-toxic and recyclable. The foam, depending on the what’s used to create it, has wide-ranging applications that include bio-implants and iron-air batteries.
The SpaceICE payload will test how this freeze-casting works in a microgravity environment found in near-Earth orbits, where the CubeSat will be locked in revolutions around Earth for six months.
This story will provide an insider’s view of cutting-edge material sciences and a snapshot of the challenges that the team tackles in preparing for SpaceICE’s launch.
I propose to write a story that is approximately 1500-1600 words and I believe it would fit into your requirements for the news or descriptive feature as part of your Science Feature section.
I will provide quotes from numerous sources inside and outside of SpaceICE and lots of photographs from my work with the team and independent research and interviews over the past three months. I am happy to answer further questions you might have about the story.
I hold a Ph.D. in mathematical biology and I am currently pursuing a Masters in Medill School of Journalism. I have reported extensively on science for media aimed at general and technical audiences. I have authored several articles highlighting key academic research publications, conference summaries, and coverage of invited speaker talks – all on an assortment of topics that include health, life sciences, statistics, energy sustainability, science policy etc., which have appeared in multiple online publications. Please refer to my attached resume for links to selected articles. You can call me at XXXX or email me at XXXX.
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