Supporting Life Beyond Earth Could Be Possible Thanks To Graphene Innovation (Astronomy)

Advanced manufacturing experts from Manchester have revealed what human life in space could look like—with a graphene-enhanced space habitat developed to meet anticipated demand for human settlements beyond Earth.

A community of specialists at The University of Manchester have teamed up with global architect firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to research the design and manufacturing of space habitats for the space industry.

With projections that the global space economy could grow to $1 trillion revenue by 2040, the innovation will raise the technology readiness level (TRL) of new lightweight composites using 2D materials for space applications.

In an international collaboration, Dr. Vivek Koncherry and his team—supported by the Manchester-based Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre—are creating a scaled prototype of a space habitat with pressurized vessels designed to function in a space environment.

SOM, the architects behind the world’s tallest building—Burj Khalifa in Dubai—are contributing design and engineering expertise to the space architecture. Daniel Inocente, SOM’s senior designer in New York, said that “designing for habitation in space poses some of the greatest challenges—it means creating an environment capable of maintaining life and integrating crew support systems.

Supporting life beyond earth could be possible -- thanks to graphene innovation
The view from inside the viewing deck aboard the Graphene Space Habitat—the image shows a child passenger with the earth below. Credit: SOM, Luxigon, and the University of Manchester

“As architects, our role is to combine and integrate the most innovative technologies, materials, methods and above all the human experience to designing inhabited environments,” added Inocente. “Conducting research using graphene allows us to test lightweight materials and design processes that could improve the efficacy of composite structures for potential applications on Earth and future use in space.”

In the next five to 10 years most governments are expected to want a permanent presence in space to manage critical infrastructure, such as satellite networks—as well as considering the potential opportunity of accessing space-based resources and further scientific exploration.

Dr. Koncherry said: “A major barrier to scaling up in time to meet this demand is the lack of advanced and automated manufacturing systems to make the specialist structures needed for living in space. One of the space industry’s biggest challenges is overcoming a lack of robotic systems to manufacture the complex shapes using advanced materials.”

The solution is incorporating graphene for advanced structural capabilities, such as radiation shielding, as well as developing and employing a new generation of robotic machines to make these graphene-enhanced structures. This technology has the potential to revolutionize high-performance lightweight structures—and could also be used for terrestrial applications in the aerospace, construction and automotive sectors.

Supporting life beyond earth could be possible -- thanks to graphene innovation
The Graphene Space Station in low earth orbit—this image shows the profile of the vessel that is made up of a collection of capsules, each housing different activities and personnel. The top of the vessel features a viewing deck that offers a unique perspective of earth and our cosmos. An Orion space shuttle is also shown flying in the background as this type of space vehicle would transport people and supplies to the Graphene Space Station. Credit: SOM, Luxigon, and the University of Manchester”?

James Baker, CEO Graphene@Manchester, says that “the work being led by Dr. Koncherry and his colleagues is taking the development of new composites and lightweighting to another level, as well as the advanced manufacture needed to make structures from these new materials. By collaborating with SOM there are opportunities to identify applications on our own planet as we look to build habitats that are much smarter and more sustainable.”

The space habitat launch coincides with a series of world firsts for graphene in the built environment currently happening here on Earth—including the first external pour of graphene-enhanced Concretene and pioneering A1 road resurfacing—all supported by experts in the city where the super strong material was first isolated.

Tim Newns, Chief Executive of MIDAS, Manchester’s inward investment agency, said that “this exciting piece of research further underlines the breadth of applications where advanced materials and in particular graphene can revolutionize global industries such as the space industry. In addition to world-leading expertise in graphene, facilities such as the new Advanced Machinery & Productivity Institute (AMPI) in Rochdale, will also support the development of advanced machines and machinery required to bring these applications to reality.”

Featured image: The Graphene Space Station in low earth orbit—this image shows the top of the viewing deck with its protective petal-like shields fully open to allow observers to have a unique perspective of earth and our cosmos. Credit: The University of Manchester, SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Luxigon

Provided by University of Manchester

U-M astronomers suggest radiation, not supernovae, drives superwinds in some galaxies (Cosmology)

The finding could provide insight into how the universe became transparent

When astronomers observe superwinds traveling at extremely high speeds from super star clusters, or “starbursts,” they previously assumed the winds were driven by supernovae, the explosions of stars.

This was the case for a starburst called Mrk 71 in a nearby galaxy. Astronomers had observed incredibly fast superwinds—traveling at about 1% of the speed of light—emanating from the cluster, and classic reasoning suggested the blasts from many supernovae drive the gas to such a high rate of speed.

But University of Michigan astronomers think supernovae aren’t the reason: the cluster is too young to have supernovae. They suspect a different mechanism is behind the superwind.

By studying the wind and starburst properties, the astronomers established that ultraviolet radiation from the compact starburst itself drove the superwind. Their findings, published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, may help explain one chapter of the universe’s beginnings.

This image is a closer view of the Mrk 71 region. Image credit: Sally Oey
This image is a closer view of the Mrk 71 region. Image credit: Sally Oey

Just after the Big Bang, the universe was very dense and opaque, says lead author and graduate student Lena Komarova. The universe was so densely packed with particles, no light could pass through them.

“But when the first stars formed in the first galaxies, they produced lots of ultraviolet light. And this essentially evaporates the gas in the universe,” Komarova said. “It’s a process similar to when you have a fog in the morning that you can’t see through—but then the sunshine comes and hits the fog, it starts breaking up into smaller droplets, and you start seeing the light pass.”

In this analogy, neutral hydrogen atoms, which make up 92% of the cosmos, are the “fog” in the universe. But as light started shining out from the first stars forming in the universe, ultraviolet light from these stars began breaking up the hydrogen particles.

“The universe essentially becomes transparent and this happens at so-called cosmic dawn when the first stars appear,” Komarova said. “And so that’s what we’re trying to figure out: How do you get this UV light that’s energetic enough to evaporate the universe, to get out of the galaxies, without it all being absorbed by hydrogen?”

Komarova and Sally Oey, U-M professor of astronomy and senior author of the paper, think the answer lies in the superwinds that they found are generated by the radiation of these compact starburst galaxies. The radiation—ultraviolet light—”evaporates” hydrogen atoms, which are composed of a single proton and a single electron, by stripping off the electrons, ionizing them.

“Only UV light is capable of doing this, because the light has to be above a certain threshold energy,” Oey said. “Once the hydrogen is ionized, it becomes transparent because it can’t capture more UV photons.”

Pictured is a map of gas brightness in four velocity ranges shown at the top, showing the wind behavior. Image credit: Lena Komarova et al
Pictured is a map of gas brightness in four velocity ranges shown at the top, showing the wind behavior. Image credit: Lena Komarova et al

The U-M astronomers came up with the hypothesis of a radiation-driven wind to explain Mrk 71, a starburst region within the galaxy NGC 2366. By examining the spectrum of this region, Komarova and Oey were able to study the gas velocity structure, and found a smooth wind that originated at the brightest Mrk 71 super star cluster.

“We found that even if you had supernovae, there still wouldn’t be enough energy to accelerate the gas to the speeds that we observe,” Komarova said. “We compared the force of stellar light on the gas to the force of gravity, and we found that the radiation is much stronger than gravity—so it can, in fact, push the gas out without gravity bringing it back in. This is what we call a radiation-driven wind.”

The acceleration itself happens when intense light irradiates dense blobs of hydrogen gas from one direction, pushing the gas along, similar to how exploding gas forces a bullet out of a gun. The blobs must be too dense to be evaporated by the ultraviolet radiation. But the light also escapes through spaces between the dense blobs of hydrogen, and blasts blobs farther out from the star cluster.

“The reason why this is linked to the very high velocities is that in order for the blobs to get accelerated to such high speeds, they need to be constantly trapping these UV rays, even at large distances from the star cluster,” Oey said.

What the researchers then propose is this process clears pathways for ultraviolet light to pass between clumps of hydrogen gas.

“So, that UV light can in fact leave its cluster where it was born and go out into the rest of the universe to evaporate it,” Komarova said. “This is putting in another piece of the puzzle of evaporation of the universe and provides a specific physical mechanism of how you do it.”

The researchers drew their conclusion using the Hubble Space Telescope and archive data gathered at the Gemini-North Observatory in Hawaii.

Featured image: This image zooms in on the Mrk 71 region in the galaxy NGC 2366. The red, blue and green colors reflect the emission of oxygen and helium ions. The observations were made from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: Sally Oey

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Provided by University of Michigan