Nanoceramics Cure Cancer, Make Hair Shiny
While working as a NASA scientist specializing in nano-materials (which are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair), Dr. Dennis Morrison developed nano-ceramics, which could be formed into tiny balloons called micro-capsules. These little balloons could be filled with cancer-fighting drugs and injected into solid tumors.
Where, you’re wondering, does space come into this process? In order to create the microscopic membrane around the liquid drugs, the micro-capsules had to be formed in low-Earth orbit. Dr. Morrison’s ceramic nano-particles contained metals that would react when the patient was subjected to a magnetic field, like what’s used in an MRI diagnostic machine. The capsules would melt, and the drugs would be released to fight the cancerous tumor.
It turns out that Dr. Morrison’s ceramic-magnetic particles were good for more than fighting tumors — they could also fight frizz. When incorporated into Farouk Systems’s hair styling iron and heated, the nano-particles released ions that made hair smooth and shiny.
Reflective Coatings Save Skylab, Manatees
When the Skylab space-based laboratory was set in position in 1973, a solar panel fell off during the launch, which kept another solar panel from deploying properly once in orbit. These panels had to be replaced — and fast. NASA turned to National Metalizing, a firm it had worked with previously, to create a new panel that would be ready to go into space in 10 days.
National Metalizing had originally developed reflective materials for NASA in the 1950s, so it was able to deliver the necessary thin plastic material coated in vaporized aluminum in time. The material can deflect or conserve radiant energy, depending on which is required — to keep something cool or to warm it up. This flexible reflective material proved so useful, it was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 1996.
A former director of the company took this technology, which has been in the public domain for decades, and started a new company, Advanced Flexible Materials. The same materials used to protect Skylab now protects marathon runners from hypothermia after a race, as well as manatees, which can suffer from hypothermia at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius), while they’re being tagged by researchers.
Hubble and its amazing sheets of optical glass paved the way for the Terrestrial Planet Finder and its deformable mirrors, which will have 100 times the imaging power of its predecessor when NASA launches it in the near future. Deformable mirrors don’t need to be absolutely perfect the first time out — they can adjust their positions to correct for blurring or distortion, which in space can be caused by temperature, lack of gravity or getting bumped during launch.
Deformable mirrors are not so new. They were proposed by astronomers in the 1950s and developed by the United States Air Force in the 1970s. Each system consists of the deformable mirror itself, a sensor that measures any aberrations it finds hundreds of times a second, and a small computer that receives the sensor’s readings and tells the mirror how to move to correct for the problem.
Nanotubes Look for Life on Mars
No matter what the movies have been telling us for decades, Martians are not likely to be humanoid, sentient beings. They won’t have ray guns or space suits. If there is life on Mars, it will be very, very small, and probably not too far up the evolution ladder. Pity.
In order to find such small forms of life, small detectors were necessary. Enter nano-tubes, which is a fun word to say. Scientists at the Ames Research Center developed carbon nano-tubes, each 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, that can conduct heat and electricity. Each nano-tube is tipped with single strands of nucleic acid (the “NA” in “DNA”) from a microorganism. When it comes into contact with a matching strand, the pair form a double helix and send a faint electrical charge through the nano-tubes. This charge is how anyone looking at the bio-sensor, as the tiny apparatus is called, knows life has been detected.
Sadly, no life has yet been found on Mars, but these bio-sensors are being put to good use on Earth. Tipping the nano-tubes with waterborne pathogens like E. Coli and Cryptosporidium means an analyst can get results from the bio-sensor in the field within two hours — no lab work required.
Mars Missions Create Tough Armor
When the Mars Pathfinder (1997) and Mars Rover (2004) missions landed on the Red Planet, they landed hard. These were unmanned missions, of course, with some guidance from engineers on Earth — but not as much as they’d like. The equipment was designed to crash land, gently, with a cage of airbags to cushion the fall from space.
Obviously, not just any airbag would work. NASA required the material to be lightweight and able to withstand extreme temperatures for the interplanetary flight. The material also had to be tough enough to keep the airbags inflated as the whole apparatus bounced along the rocky, sharp surface of Mars.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with Warwick Mills, the company that had woven the reentry parachutes for the Apollo missions in the 1960s, to create a layered, coated, liquid-crystal polyester fiber that would fit the bill.
Warwick took the technology and ran with it, creating TurtleSkin protective gear that can withstand punctures from needles, knives and even bullets. The flexibility of the tightly woven fabric, which helped keep the Mars landers safe, now also keeps military and police officers safe.