Space is a not a single environment, but many: so the manufacturing materials and processes used for each new space mission must be chosen with great care.
Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA’s materials technology section, explains how this process works in practice, using the example of Europe’s Solar Orbiter mission, which will venture within 42 million km of the Sun.
The spacecraft’s main body takes cover behind a protective heat shield, but to go on working it will have to keep the same colour despite years of exposure to extreme ultraviolet radiation.
At the same time, the shield surface cannot crack, shed material or release vapour, because this might contaminate Solar Orbiter’s highly-sensitive instruments. Any build-up of static is also unacceptable.
Existing surfaces and coatings couldn’t do this; it was time to turn to a solution outside the space industry. ESA’s materials experts reached out to an Irish company called ENBIO focused on coating titanium-made medical implants with carbon black – once used for ancient cave painting.