High vacuum positioning systems and materials have an important role when it comes to the field of astronautics, due to the fact that space is basically a vacuum in and of itself.That said, like most technology, these face an unfortunately common problem that engineers are still trying to solve: outgassing.
This phenomenon may actually be familiar to those who have experienced entering a newly purchased vehicle, as they would be able to get a whiff of what many term the “new car smell.” While on the surface it may sound like a minor annoyance that can be done away with a simple spray of air freshener, make no mistake: it is not as simple as that, especially when the new smell that you are going to deal with is that of a space craft meant to be launched into space.
The Implications for Astronautics
In the vacuum of space, gas is very sparse especially between galaxies. However, gasses can be emitted from solid surfaces if these materials were not meant to function well in high vacuum environments. If these gasses’ molecules were to leak from the materials they were originally absorbed in, it could cause a few problems for the crew, such as contamination and condensation.
For instance, cameras are essential tools in the quest to learn more about our constantly expanding universe. After all, they are used to visually document any interesting findings from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. How else can these discoveries be shared with the rest of humankind? It is a problem, then, if any accidentally released gas manages to condense on the lenses of the cameras. This may not only block the field of vision, but can also damage the internal mechanisms, such as the charged-coupled-device (CCD) sensor, effectively rendering the entire thing unusable in the long run. Remember: in space, there are no camera shops to run to for repairs or replacement parts.
Pre-Heating Space Tech: The Bake-Out Process
In an effort to prevent this phenomenon from occurring out in space, astronautic engineers perform a procedure known as a “bake-out” test. This process is done within a high-vacuum chamber somewhere within the aircraft before it is scheduled to launch. This way, they are able to artificially begin the process of outgassing while still within the Earth’s atmosphere in order to see whether or not they require further testing and development.
Moving Forward: New Solutions Every Year
While outgassing continues to be a regular issue that astronautic engineers strive to resolve, there may come a day when it will become a thing of the past. In fact, recent efforts by NASA Goddard engineers Mark Hasegawa and Sharon Straka have resulted in the creation of a sprayable paint that can absorb any outgassed molecules before they can come into contact with delicate instruments. These kinds of inventions definitely seem like the product of a science fiction novel or movie, but the discoveries and solutions for maintaining high vacuum positioning systems can only get better from here.