Francesco Panerai of Analytical Mechanical Associates Inc., a materials scientist leading a series of X-ray experiments at Berkeley Lab for NASA Ames Research Center, discusses a 3-D visualization (shown on screens) of a heat shield material’s microscopic structure in simulated spacecraft atmospheric entry conditions. The visualization is based on X-ray imaging at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab

A national lab and NASA are working together with X-ray and 3D visualization technologies to create materials to utilize in space.

The goal of the collaboration— between NASA and a science group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—is to establish a suite of tools that includes X-ray imaging and small laboratory experiments, computer-based analysis and simulation tools, as well as large-scale high heat and wind-tunnel tests, to allow for rapid development of new materials with established performance and reliability in space.

This system can heat sample materials to thousands of degrees and subject them to a mixture of different gases found in other planets’ atmospheres—with pistons stretching the materials to their breaking points— all while imagining in real time their 3D behavior at the microstructure level.

For humans to explore Mars and other large-payload missions, a new type of heat shield that is flexible and can remain folded up until needed is likely required.

An initial X-ray study has been deemed successful and led to a renewed interest in exploring the use of X-ray experiments to guide a better understanding of meteorite breakup. Scientists are using data from these experiments in risk analysis and aid in assessing threats posed by large asteroids.

Michael Barnhardt, a senior research scientist at NASA ARC and principal investigator of the Entry Systems Modeling Project, explained that the research led to a better understanding of what was going on at the microscale.

“Before this collaboration, we didn’t understand what was happening at the microscale,” Barnhardt said in a statement. “We didn’t have a way to test it.

“X-rays gave us a way to peek inside the material and get a view we didn’t have before,” he added. “With this understanding, we will be able to design new materials with properties tailored to a certain mission.”

According to Barnhardt, this basis will build more predictive models, reduce risk and provide more assurance about a new material’s performance even at initial stages.

Researchers at Berkeley are testing several candidates for a flexible heat shield in addition to fabrics for Mars-mission parachutes that can be deployed at supersonic speeds, using Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS) and with other techniques.

“We are developing a system at the ALS that can simulate all material loads and stresses over the course of the atmospheric entry process,” Harold Barnard, a scientist at Berkeley Lab’s ALS who is spearheading the Lab’s X-ray work with NASA, said in a statement.

A group of researchers at NASA Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) can blast materials with a giant superhot blowtorch that accelerates hot air to velocities topping 11,000 miles per hour, with temperatures exceeding that of the surface of the Sun.

The scientists also test parachutes and spacecraft at their wind-tunnel facilities, which can produce supersonic wind speeds faster than 1,900 miles per hour.

While it takes rocket science to launch and fly spacecraft’s, an understanding of how materials perform under extreme conditions is also needed to enter and land on planets with different atmospheres.

X-ray science is also necessary in ensuring spacecrafts survive in extreme environments as they descent through otherworldly atmospheres and touch down safely on foreign surfaces.

Francesco Panerai, a materials scientist with NASA contractor AMA Inc. and the X-ray experiments test lead for NASA ARC, said the aim is to modernize how scientists produce and study materials.

“We need to use modern measurement techniques to improve our understanding of material response,” Panerai said in a statement.

The experiments are being conducted at an ALS experimental station that captures a sequence of images as a sample is rotated in front of an X-ray beam. These images, which provide views inside the samples and can resolve details less than one micron or one millionth of a meter, can be compiled to form detailed 3D images and animations of samples.