Space mission reaches new heights

UCLan has launched graphene into space
UCLan has launched graphene into space

To infinity and beyond......

Lancashire academics really are reaching for the stars in the quest to take the world’s toughest material to new heights.

In the first experiment of its kind, researchers at the University of Central Lancashire are exploring the practical applications of exploiting graphene in the UK space industry - by launching specially adapted samples into near space using high altitude balloons.

By comparing a graphene-enhanced carbon fibre to a standard carbon fibre casing, researchers will be able to test how both react to extreme conditions high above the Earth. They will then compare the results to determine how graphene can be utilised in space.

Graphene has been hailed as the world’s first 2D material. It is ultra-light but immensely tough. While it is 200 times stronger than steel, it is also incredibly flexible. UCLan scientists believe that graphene, in combination with other materials, could allow satellites to be lighter, reducing the costs of launching them into space and making them more robust against the impacts of space debris.

The investigation,led by UCLan and part-funded by the UK Space Agency’s National Space Technology Programme, saw balloons reaching heights of 115,000ft, four times the height reached by an average aeroplane.

To make sure the results were accurate, sensors were attached to each casing to monitor and record key data including how they react to temperatures of up to minus 60 degrees, and the effects of very low pressure. The raw data that will enable them to take the next critical steps in their research.

This experiment follows the launch of Prospero at the 2016 Farnborough Air Show, which was a three-metre wide unmanned aircraft part-constructed using graphene-enhanced carbon fibre.

Dr Darren Ansell, space and aerospace engineer at UCLan said: “We wanted to go one step further following the launch of Prospero last year and explore how graphene could potentially form an integral component of future satellites and space vehicles.”

Professor Robert Walsh, Professor of Astrophysics at UCLan, added: “Our mission was very successful, both casings were recovered and we are now in the process of analysing the flight data to explore how graphene could play a key role in future of space exploration.”

Elizabeth Seaman, head of major projects and technology development at the UK Space Agency said: “This project will take graphene to new heights and show us what the material could do for the UK’s growing space sector. Science and research are at the heart of the government’s Industrial Strategy, and the UK Space Agency is committed to driving economic growth by supporting new space technologies and helping to develop skills that will bring benefits to people across the UK.”