NASA scientists have developed a 'sensory skin' for spacecraft that can pick up signs of damage in real time, an innovation that could help protect future satellites, aircraft and even habitats on other worlds.
The new invention uses a series of several technologies to create circuits printed on thin layers and that can be embedded in a spacecraft's structure, scientists behind the invention said.
Micrometeoroids and orbital debris pose threats to spacecraft as they travel at very high speeds for trips to the Moon and deep space.
Something as small as a paint chip moving at that velocity can punch through several layers of glass.
Under development at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in the US, the Flexible Damage Detection System technology has been pursued as a possible solution to NASA's problem of figuring out in real-time where a spacecraft is damaged and how seriously.
If something pierces a spacecraft's hull – or the first layer or two - there are very limited ways for astronauts aboard a spacecraft to know there might be damage.
An impact that goes all the way through and causes a leak would set off alarms, but otherwise the current methods to detect damage require either a camera inspection or a spacewalking astronaut.
Nor is there a precise way to pinpoint exactly in real-time where the damage occurred if not visible to the eye or camera so astronauts can assess it.
"It's a sensory system that tells us where we are damaged and the level of intensity," said Martha Williams, scientist leading the development team.
The sensory system comprises several systems from low-voltage electric to circuits printed on Kapton thermal insulation film to unique software that tracks the damage.
A big part of the work also includes making the manufacturing methods more efficient so the technology can more easily transfer to commercial companies for potential use, Williams said.
Right now for development and demonstration on the ground, the largest square of sensory panel is 6-by-6 inches and it is connected to wiring and a computer that monitors the system.
Scientists and engineers envision tiling the squares together like a quilt to make a complete sensor network. They could be foldable and could be used in an inflatable or expandable spacecraft in the future.
Depending on the approach, a spacecraft could have a detection layer wrapping it completely, or just covering a certain area over a particularly critical system.
The damage detector could also be applied to the outside of a habitat on the lunar or Martian surface to calculate damage from small impacts.
On Earth, the system could perhaps also be applied to the outside of airplanes to tell pilots when their airframe has been impacted and may be compromised.