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Uni students invent 'radiation-proof' cloth for Moon tents

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In news which could be a boon for the fledging inflatable Moon habitat tent podule industry, a group of textiles students from North Carolina say they have invented a radiation-proof, solar power generating fabric ideal for lunar camping.

As regular Reg readers will be well aware, most of the universe is too radioactive for unprotected humans to survive for long. The majority of astronauts and cosmonauts have never ventured further from Earth than low orbit, and so have remained safely within the planet's protective magnetosphere. The few exceptions - the Apollo moon explorers of yesteryear - made only brief excursions into danger. Even so, had there been a sudden solar storm at the wrong time during an Apollo mission, the results would have been disastrous.

Nowadays, however, the USA is supposed to be planning long-term stays for its astronauts on the Moon and then perhaps Mars. This isn't as dangerous as being out in space, as almost half the sky is blocked out by an impenetrable shield - you've got a fifty-fifty chance that the sun, the primary radiation threat, will be below the horizon when it kicks off.

But it might not be - especially if your outpost has been sited to have constant or near-constant solar power. This is quite likely, as the only long-term power generation technologies which work in space are solar and nuclear. Nuclear is comparatively bulky and expensive; it also tends to cause technofear panic when even quite small radioisotope power packs are publicly launched. (Mostly such kit has been sent up secretly as part of spy satellites, attracting no protests, but the civil space programme enjoys no such privacy.)

It might be possible to build solar-storm-proof bunkers out of Moon or Mars dirt, but at least initially it would probably be a lot easier to use inflatable living quarters. NASA has been testing such moon-balloon housing for temperature resistance in the Arctic lately, in fact. But blow-up bases would normally be a bit lacking on the radiation protection front.

Enter three spunky North Carolina State University students, all recent graduates of the NCSU textile engineering programme. Michael Sieber, Ryan Boyle and Anne Tomasevich believe that their "lunar texshield" miracle cloth can solve problems that have had the world's best rocket scientists stumped. They intend to enter it for NASA's Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) compo this summer.

"These obstacles are where our knowledge of textile properties will give us an advantage," says Dr Warren Jasper, the NCSU textiles prof who advised the three young inventors. "This is a competition aimed at aerospace engineering students, but we understand the properties associated with different textile materials, and that gives us unique insight on how to troubleshoot some of these issues."

According to NCSU:

The "lunar texshield" is made from a lightweight polymer material that has a layer of radiation shielding that deflects or absorbs the radiation so astronauts are only exposed to a safe amount. The outermost surface of the shield includes a layer of solar cells to generate electricity, backed up by layers of radiation-absorbing materials. The advantages of the materials used in the design include flexibility, large surface area, ease of transportation, ease of construction and the ability to have multiple layers of independent functional fabrics.

If the stuff lives up to its billing, it may not just be Moon and Mars bases that wind up making use of it. Doubtless the famous space-bubble kingpin Robert Bigelow, currently engaged on a massive effort to build inflatable hotels in Earth orbit, would be interested too - such fabric would allow him to place his balloon space-stations beyond the magnetosphere.

The precocious NCSU brainboxes may not have the field of space radiation shielding all to themselves, however. Older boffins are already making heavy play with their alternative "forcefield" solar-storm-umbrella technology. ®

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