Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine –  by Linda Shiner

The spacecraft that will one day land humans on Mars will be made of a material that has not yet been invented. Ditto for the rocket that sends them there. But at the end of a $15 million, five-year NASA project set to begin next month, an advanced, high-performance composite will be invented, and it may be the very material used to build those spacecraft. The people inventing it are Ph.D. candidates and other students at 11 universities, all working together. (Utah Composites Lab, directed by mechanical engineering professor Dan Adams and assistant professor Michael Czabaj, are members of this elite team.)
 The project, called the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP), is led by Michigan Technological University professor Greg Odegard, who assembled the 11-university team of experts in computational mechanics and materials science. The problem NASA has set for them to solve: Use carbon nanotubes to create a composite that is lighter and stronger than any material used in load-bearing structures today. Odegard says high-powered computers at his university and others are the key to success.

“If we want to improve the material that we can already build in a laboratory, we have two options,” he says. “We can go into the lab and keep trying new things until we get it right, but that’s time-consuming and expensive. [Or] we can simulate the materials on a computer and optimize material design much quicker.”

Among other things, the computers will be used to try out changes in the molecular structure of the materials and predict the effect on the material’s mechanical properties—stiffness, toughness, weight, and tensile strength.

At the end of the five years, the teams will produce a panel measuring several feet on a side that can be scaled up to build launch vehicles and spacecraft.

“The next big advancement over carbon fiber-reinforced composites would be making those fibers out of carbon nanotubes, which are very high-strength and very lightweight,” says Steve Jurczyk, the associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which created the institute. “[Using] carbon nanotube-based materials for load-bearing structures is somewhat unique to NASA.”

Students (pictured) at the Utah Composites Laboratory, Jessica Christensen and Devin Young, monitor 3D printing with polymers reinforced by carbon nanotube yarn. The University of Utah team is heading the testing of the final composite panel.

Graduate students at 11 universities will be training to become the next-generation aerospace engineers, who will understand new materials and new computational methods to build the vehicles that will take humans far beyond Earth orbit.

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