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"Space Case" -- The Discovery Files

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Taking cues from humans who have a self-contained system to manage internal temperature through homeostasis, a team of researchers have developed a new material to self-regulate the temperature of the satellite. This material could prevent disruptions in tracking wildfires and other natural disasters or using day-to-day applications such as Google maps and Netflix.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Thermal upper wear.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

You'll most likely rely on a satellite two or three different ways today. GPS, movies, TV, radio -- beamed to us from the extreme void of space, where temperatures can vary as much as 260 degrees between being in sunlight and the Earth's shadow. Protecting the delicate workings of onboard gear by controlling a satellite's temperature is crucial. It's mostly done now using physical shutters or heat pipes that are heavy and drain system power. Engineers at USC, working with Northrop Grumman, are showing there's more than one way to "skin" a satellite.

They've developed an ultra-thin protective coating that automatically regulates the bird's temp. The material is less than half the thickness of a hair, with a textured surface. It's made of silicon and vanadium dioxide. Vanadium dioxide is a "phase-change" material. It works as an insulator at low temperatures and a conductor at high temps. Perfect for automatically radiating heat away from the satellite or letting it warm up.

Other advantages include its light weight and ability to work without having to be powered. The developers say the skin material could have some "down-to-earth" uses as well, such as covering buildings to help maintain temperatures. Bringing this advance from outer space to our personal space.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at nsf.gov or on our podcast.

 
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