Choosing materials for space structures

  1. Interstellar travel is mostly a though experiment at this stage (although NASA will be launching the solar sail SunJammer in a couple of years). My question is a very broad one about what type of materials would be well-suited for structures to support interstellar travel.

    Any human habitat would be pressurized (to ~14-21 psia) and (probably) made out of steel (like the Centaur, the upper stage of the Atlas V rocket) or aluminum in the shape of a cylinder. What could be the expected life of such a structure in this environment (corrosion due to moisture, radiation, etc.).
    Is there an "ideal" material for this application? How might you estimate a usable life for the structure? I've never really seen much data where material performance is extrapolated to centuries (rather than years). When a structure of this sort does fail, what would be the failure mode?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Astronuc

    Staff: Mentor

    Usually for spacecraft, one wants a high strength-to-weight ratio. One wishes to minimize mass (propulsive energy/power requirements) that must be transported long distances.

    We do not have much experience of highly engineered materials (advanced alloys and materials) over more than a few decades.

    Fatigue/creep, and possibly erosion/corrosion, would be limiting over long periods of time.

    Most applications of spacecraft are within the neighborhoods of the earth or solar system, so the lifetime might be 7 years, 10 years, or 30 years, or mission time + margin. We are a lot smarter now than we were when the Voyager spacecraft were launched.

    http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/
     
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