NASA researchers are using high tech paint to push forward aerospace and aircraft design, expected to drastically cut down on fuel use, pollution and noise generated by aircraft.
The colour is a distinctive shade of Pepto-Bismol pink but the results are anything but upsetting, as researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California have found that their technology called Unsteady pressure-sensitive paint (PSP) is playing a crucial role in the study of air flow and pressure loads on spacecraft and rockets.
Pressure-sensitive paint has been around for decades, but the new advance comes from the ultra-sensitivity of NASA’s new technology, which works by reacting with oxygen to produce light of varying intensity depending on the air pressure exerted on the painted surface. The new Unsteady PSP is painted onto the surfaces of spacecraft models being tested in wind tunnels, with cameras capturing every fluctuation in airflow along the way.
“PSP is great because as long as you can apply paint to the area you want to test, illuminate it with a lamp, and view it with a camera, you can gather data you might not otherwise be able to get,” said Nettie Roozeboom, an aerospace engineer with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
Roozeboom, the space agency’s expert on PSP – especially NASA’s pink-hued version “Everything that’s pink ends up in my office,” she said – spoke of the superiority of using PSP to the traditional method of testing air pressure which involves pressure taps, small tubes poked through holes in a model’s surface in key places. “The challenge [with pressure taps] is you can only install so many of these taps, otherwise your whole model becomes one big pressure tap,” Roozeboom said. “And in some models, there just isn’t enough room inside the model to accommodate the taps.”
NASA reports that the Unsteady PSP is being used on the Space Launch System, dubbed the “world’s most powerful rocket,” which is being prepped for human exploration out beyond Earth’s orbit, including a planned journey to Mars. The first SLS, called Block 1, has a minimum 70-tonne lift capability, weighs 2.6 million kgs and 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff (about the same as 160,000 Corvette engines, NASA says). The SLS is slated for its first real test in September of 2018 where it will launch an uncrewed flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle out to a three-week orbit around the moon.
NASA’s technologies were recently on display at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the space agency exhibited mock-ups of the SLS as well as virtual tours of both the SLS and the Orion Command Module. NASA researchers on hand spoke of the human-robot teaming which will feature prominently in future human exploration missions and discussed the 3-D graphical user interface known as VERVE (“Visual Environment for Remote and Virtual Exploration”) which has been used to operate NASA’s K10 planetary rover during testing in the Canadian Arctic and the Arizona desert. The VERVE software is also seeing applications in the design of autonomous or self-driving vehicles, as confirmed at CES 2017 by automaker Nissan who is partnering with NASA on intelligent mobility technologies.