New Spacecraft Shield to Revolutionize Aerial Industry

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MIT scientists discovered a new design for spacecraft shields after finding that very hot metals get stronger when struck by an object moving at a super high velocity.

The new discovery, published in a paper in the ‘Nature’ journal, could lead to new approaches to designing materials for extreme environments, like shields that protect spacecraft or hypersonic aircraft, or equipment for high-speed manufacturing processes.

According to Techxplore, the researchers discovered this new effect through experiments involving shooting tiny particles of sapphire using laser beams at flat sheets of metal (samples of copper, titanium, and gold), making them reach extremely high velocities. The team then used extremely high-speed cameras to watch the particles and see the difference between the incoming and outgoing velocities as they bounced off the surface. They could also see how much energy was deposited into the target, which is an indicator of the surface strength.

Christopher Schuh, former head of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, explains that these findings could lead to different choices of materials when designing devices that could encounter such extreme stresses. For example, metals that are less expensive or easier to process but would ordinarily be much weaker could now have new and unexpected uses. The techniques used by the researchers to uncover this phenomenon could also be applied to a variety of other materials and situations, including other metals and alloys.

Furthermore, the extreme conditions the researchers studied are not confined to spacecraft or extreme manufacturing methods. Ian Dowding, an MIT graduate student who took part in the research explains that when flying a helicopter in a sandstorm, a lot of the sand particles will reach high velocities as they hit the blades, and under desert conditions, they may reach the high temperatures where these hardening effects “kick in.” In that case, these new shielding materials will be extremely useful and relevant.