Finding inspiration from nature in order to refine and advance modern technologies is nothing new; Mercedes’ bionic car was an interesting example and we’ve also seen a new ‘smart fabric’ based on the design of pine cones. Perhaps one of the most inspiring species, certainly in the plant world, is the lotus, which has already contributed to the development of fog-free windscreens and other surfaces along with improving the efficiency of solar cells.
Continued research in this area has now attracted significant interest from NASA, who is getting involved through the development of a special coating to prevent particles from sticking to surfaces of spaceflight equipment.
It is working with Northrop Grumman Electronics Systems and nGimat Corporation to recreate the surface of a Lotus Leaf, which is comprised of a multitude of tiny spikes that reduce the area on which water and dirt can attach, to develop a transparent coating for spacesuits, scientific instruments, robotic vehicles and solar panels to better protect expensive equipment from the rigours of space and improve efficiency and longevity in these harsh environments.
Of course, outer space is a little different to your average back-garden pond and as highlighted by Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, the concept will need some serious refinement before it gets off the ground.
"I think one of the most aggravating, restricting facets of lunar surface exploration is the dust and its adherence to everything no matter what kind of material, whether it be skin, suit material, metal, no matter what it be and its restrictive, friction-like action to everything it gets on." he said. "However, the coating as it was originally formulated will not be able to withstand the harsh environmental conditions found in space. No one formula will meet all our needs, for example, the coating that's applied to spacesuits needs to stick to a flexible surface, while a coating developed to protect moving parts needs to be exceptionally durable to resist wear and tear."
As well as carrying out rigorous testing in these sorts of environments NASA is also looking to Northrop Grumman to help develop an anti-bacterial property for the coating to prevent contamination, and in succeeding at such a task it will also prepare the substance for more conventional, commercial locations such as hospitals.
"We are modifying and testing the formula to ensure it can withstand all the challenges our hardware will encounter, extreme temperatures, ultraviolet radiation, solar wind, and electrostatic charging” said Peters. “Outgassing of the coating also must be addressed for use inside astronauts' habitation areas. We also are making sure it remains durable and cleanable in the space environment."