The SpaceX graphene experiments that are out of this world

7 Apr 2022

Close-up of one of the graphene devices aboard the SpaceX mission. Image: Applied Nanolayers

On the SpaceX Transporter-4 mission, graphene components developed by a Dutch company will be tested for future space travel.

A SpaceX mission launched last week will test the response of graphene components in a space travel environment.

Graphene, the ‘wonder material’ that consists of single layers of carbon atoms, has many potential uses due to its thinness, strength, flexibility and conductivity. Researchers have looked at applications from flexible electronics and 3D imaging of the universe, to sucking up pollution from the air and biosensors for detecting Covid-19.

Now, experiments designed by university students from the Netherlands and Chile will probe how the material responds to the impacts of a real space environment, with graphene test devices developed by Dutch company Applied Nanolayers.

Aboard the SpaceX Transporter-4 mission that launched into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida last Friday (1 April), the devices will test how graphene components withstand the vibration, radiation and temperature extremes of space.

The data generated will help students and researchers from Applied Nanolayers and the Technological University of Delft to monitor the performance of the graphene components that could inform future design decisions.

‘Withstand the rigours of space’

Graphene may have the ability to improve the sensitivity and accuracy of sensors used for navigation and astronomical observation, so the data collected through the SpaceX mission could be crucial for future space travel.

Although there has been interest in using graphene for components in space travel before, such as when Chinese scientists were using graphene to produce solar sails that could be used to explore deep space, Applied Nanolayers says this is the first time its graphene components have been tested in space.

“Graphene has been proposed in an enormous variety of space applications, but this project is specifically focused on the performance of graphene devices and graphene’s ability to withstand the rigours of space,” said Paul Hedges, CEO of Applied Nanolayers.

The Delft-based company is an advanced manufacturer and integrator of graphene and other high-performance 2D materials for use in semiconductors and other technologies.

The SpaceX Transporter-4 is a specialised rideshare mission, carrying numerous small microsatellites and nanosatellites for commercial and government customers, headed for a sun-synchronous orbit.

“Now that the launch has gone to plan, we wish the students from Delft and Chile every success as they wait patiently to receive the experimental data in June,” Hedges added.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic