Researchers gear up for sending graphene into near space

18 December 2017

UCLan leads unique investigation to determine how graphene can be utilised in space

In the first experiment of its kind, researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) are exploring the practical applications of exploiting graphene in the UK space industry. They are doing this by launching specially designed graphene-enhanced carbon fibre material into near space using high altitude balloons.

By comparing a graphene-enhanced carbon fibre to a standard carbon fibre casing, researchers will be able to test how both react to extreme conditions high above the Earth. They will then compare the results to determine how graphene can be utilised in space.

Graphene has been hailed as the world's first 2D material. In particular it is ultra-light, yet immensely tough. While it is 200 times stronger than steel, it is also incredibly flexible. UCLan scientists believe that graphene, in combination with other materials, could allow satellites to be lighter, reducing the costs of launching them into space and making them more robust against the impacts of space debris.

Led by the UCLan and part-funded by the UK Space Agency’s National Space Technology Programme, this unique investigation will see the balloons reaching heights of 115,000 ft, which is four times the height reached by an average aeroplane.

"We’re at the beginning of something truly exciting and this raw data could shape how the rest of the space industry utilises graphene."

To ensure accurate results, sensors will be attached to each casing to monitor and record key data, including how they react to temperatures of up to minus 60 degrees, and the effects of very low pressure. This launch will provide researchers with the raw data that will enable them to take the next critical steps in their research.

UCLan has already explored numerous applications of graphene in the aerospace industry. This experiment follows the launch of Prospero at the 2016 Farnborough Air Show, which was a three-metre wide unmanned aircraft. This was part-constructed using graphene-enhanced carbon fibre which was provided by Haydale Composite Solutions.

Dr Darren Ansell, space and aerospace engineer at UCLan said: “We wanted to go one step further following the launch of Prospero last year and explore how graphene could potentially form an integral component of future satellites and space vehicles.”

Robert Walsh, professor of astrophysics at UCLan added: “We’re at the beginning of something truly exciting and this raw data could shape how the rest of the space industry utilises graphene.”

Elizabeth Seaman, head of major projects and technology development at the UK Space Agency commented: “This project will take graphene to new heights and show us what the material could do for the UK’s growing space sector. Science and research are at the heart of the government’s Industrial Strategy, and the UK Space Agency is committed to driving economic growth by supporting new space technologies and helping to develop skills that will bring benefits to people across the UK.”

The graphene-enhanced materials have been produced by industrial partners Haydale Composite Solutions Ltd, while the high-altitude balloons used for the launch were provided by Sent Into Space.

Darren Ansell
Darren Ansell