Why Space? : The Opportunity for Materials Science and Innovation

Lappa, Marcello and Hamerton, Ian and Roberts, Peter C.E. and Kao, Andrew and Domingos, Marco and Soorghali, Hamid and Carvil, Philip, eds. (2024) Why Space? : The Opportunity for Materials Science and Innovation. Satellite Applications Catapult, Didcot. (https://sa.catapult.org.uk/digital-library/why-spa...)

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Advanced materials (and their manufacturing) are one of the 7 transformational ‘technology families’ identified by UK Government, where there is both a key opportunity for growth and existing globally competitive research and development (R&D) expertise tied with industrial strength. Similarly, at both a local and global scale, the space sector continues to grow in both size and ambition. With the development of a robust, space launch and provider ecosystem, the ability to access space is accelerating, bringing with it the key opportunity to harness the space environment to augment this technology family’s development heralding solutions to terrestrial challenges. Coupled with this sizable opportunity, are the significant plans for space infrastructure and exploration, that require novel material and manufacturing processes, enhanced properties, and solutions to achieve these.  Therefore, there exists a strong foundation for a cohesive case that could bring these communities together and demonstrate the case to key actors (from funders and policy makers to scientists and entrepreneurs) on the opportunity for materials with space. From fundamental research to applied industry solutions, this paper harnesses perspectives from across these communities to better understand the possibilities for research, innovation, and growth. To build this foundation, it is important to contextualise that materials science is an extremely broad field where scientists seek to understand the formation, structure, and properties of materials on various scales, ranging from the atomic to the microscopic and to the macroscopic (large enough to be visible). The properties a material has (such as strength or electrical conductivity) are determined by its structure. Hence, establishing quantitative and predictive relationships between the way a material is processed, its structure (how atoms or larger inclusions are arranged), and its properties is of paramount importance. Gravity is a major contributing factor to this understanding. Materials processing in general, and metals in particular, are often influenced by gravity-driven mechanisms such as solidification. In this case, the liquid-to-solid transition of pure metals is affected by both convection and sedimentation which will ultimately determine the structure of the material. To better understand the complex relationship of processing to a material’s structure, scientists are exploring the use of microgravity facilities to conduct materials-science experiments, where the aforementioned undesired effects are reduced. This includes the use of both in-orbit based facilities (such as the international space station) as well ground- based facilities (such as drop towers). Studying the effects of the space environment on the properties and behaviour of many fluid and solid “terrestrial systems”, could lead to the development of novel manipulation strategies and materials in space, with properties or functionalities that cannot be obtained in normal gravity conditions. For example, this can inform the development of the next generation of advanced materials with superior physicochemical properties to support human space exploration as well as revolutionising established processes on Earth, including design and manufacturing. R&D in this area, could also help address key roadmap points for space exploration (such as in-situ resource utilisation), as well as those cited in terrestrial R&D roadmaps (such as increasing the efficiency and capacity for novel semi-conductor manufacturing). This in turn can drive global leadership, foster international collaboration and development of novel solutions to terrestrial challenges. Fundamental to enabling this is recognising, championing, and stimulating this opportunity. This paper, its authored contributions, and the derived recommendations within, aim to provide a ‘small step’ on the journey.