May 30, 2024 8 min read Future Materials

Bianca Cefalo: Why the Future of Materials Could Be in Space

A thermo-fluid-dynamic engineer on the 2013 NASA/JPL Insight Mars mission, and former Airbus Defense and Space thermal product manager, Bianca Cefalo is the CEO and co-founder of the startup Space DOTS, revolutionizing materials testing in space.

Bianca Cefalo: Why the Future of Materials Could Be in Space

How should we be thinking about the future of materials in space?

I would love to think that extraterrestrial materials will be the ones that will define the future of our civilization. There is the obvious reason of trying to use resources in space, like Moon or Mars regolith, metals from asteroid belts, or anything that we can use for storage, energy generation, or construction as we expand our activities in space. 

But it’s also about looking at these extraterrestrial materials and their benefits for life on Earth. For example, microgravity environments offer unique conditions for synthesizing materials with properties not achievable on Earth. We’ve seen how the production of these materials in orbit can produce stronger alloys and more efficient crystal structures that contribute to more effective semiconductors or advanced pharmaceuticals. At the same time, metals like rare-earth elements could be extracted from celestial bodies. It’s very far away, it’s sci-fi, but this is where I hope we are heading. 

Space activity is moving beyond satellites to more ambitious programs. What does that mean for materials? 

Broadly speaking, the demand for materials is driven by the expansion of space exploration. We’re amid a huge shift where the entire space industry is moving past rockets and satellites, toward ambitious programs like commercial space stations, space travel, in-space manufacturing, space-based solar power stations, asteroid mining, and human habitats around the Earth and on interplanetary soil. So, there is a need for new materials that are lightweight, enhance performance, and are easy to commercialize in less than 10 years. 

Around 90% of the spacecraft and satellites in orbit today are made out of aluminum alloys that we have used since the Apollo mission in the sixties! But now with an ecosystem growing at an exponential rate and projected to reach $1 trillion by the year 2040, everything sent into space, down to the very tiniest patch of glue, is a novel materials challenge and a potential new business opportunity.    

Future Materials

Fourth in a series about the possibilities of Future Materials. Western Digital talks with scientists and technologists to explore what’s next. 

Your startup is helping companies test new materials in space. What kind of materials are you seeing a demand for?  

We’re seeing a demand of everything from 2D materials like graphene, to nanocomposites and nanofilaments, 3D-printed alloys, plastics, ceramics, metals, adhesives, coatings, metamaterials, high-tech fabrics, and biomaterials—and that’s just to name a few.

Most space missions prefer qualified advanced materials over off-the-shelf solutions because of their advantages in increasing mission success. For example, payload weight is key for what you can get off our planet and how much it will cost. So advanced materials with high strength-to-weight ratios allow for more efficient use of limited resources. 

We’re also seeing metamaterials and smart materials with responsive properties, such as shape memory alloys and self-healing composites, that can adapt to changing conditions and repair minor damages, increasing the reliability and longevity of space assets. It’s somewhere between sci-fi and magic.  

In a recent interview, you talked about data being the key to developing future materials in space. How much data do we have and what data do we need? 

It is fair to say that human knowledge about the environment of space is extremely limited. The farther we move from the Low Earth Orbit, to Cis-lunar for instance, the less we know how the environment impacts space systems. The reality is that the simulation models and ground testing facilities used by the industry to develop space systems are calibrated and tuned on a massive guesstimate. 

Radiation, atomic oxygen, solar flares, and corona mass ejections can have severe consequences for spacecraft, satellites, and human spaceflight. And they are not a constant in space. But unfortunately, we only have a few data points available from agencies’ one-off missions.  

As humanity continues to expand its presence in space, from Earth orbit to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, the demand for reliable space environmental data becomes increasingly critical. We need data to accurately replicate conditions in these places if we want to design systems that are reliable, resilient, and safe.  

Until today, materials for space have been tested on Earth. You’re trying to change that. Tell us more about this challenge. 

The challenge is that we’re still doing materials qualification, the approval for these materials, the same old way. The legacy space agencies and businesses that started this industry go through very rigid processes to simulate, test, and qualify a material. The people working on the Voyager mission, for example, hardly saw the mission being sent into space during their lifetime. 

The new space industry, which includes Space DOTS, we iterate fast, and we fail fast. There’s a shortcoming with this process as well. As much as you don’t want the lengthy process, you want to make sure you’re taking your time building a successful solution and not creating more problems, like space junk. We’re helping meet two different mindsets in the middle to facilitate more qualified advanced materials adoption for ambitious space technologies. 

You mention the problem of space junk. How important is sustainability in space exploration, what role do materials play in efforts for a circular space economy, and is recycling space junk viable? 

Sustainability is increasingly recognized as essential for the long-term viability of space activities and preserving our orbital environment. One of the needs that has come to us is the demisability problem of spacecraft. We want to make sure that there is enough strength and performance for spacecraft to properly operate, but once the decommissioning is going through the atmosphere, it also needs to go away. Biomaterials are very popular at the moment—wood-based satellite panels, bamboo-based materials, even flax seed; it’s a different way of thinking. 

At the same time, reusing and recycling space junk is also a promising solution to the growing problem of orbital debris. Can we melt aluminum and all these different alloys to create 3D printing polymers that can eventually be used for parts in space? Can we recycle or reuse solar panels? There are technical challenges, safety questions, and regulatory frameworks that we need to create to make this happen, but companies are working on it. 

“Everything sent into space, down to the very tiniest patch of glue, is a novel materials challenge and a potential new business opportunity.”  

Space-based solar has been making headlines recently. You work with companies developing this technology—is this a materials challenge?

Besides the technological challenge of generating power beamed to Earth from kilometers away, is the massive number of structures that need to be deployed into orbit. 

First, it’s not going to be deployed in the usual Low Earth orbit, because it requires different positioning. Then, it needs solar panels that are kilometers long. So we need to figure out a way to send, deploy, and assemble in space, and we need manufacturing techniques and materials that are commercialized and strong enough to resist more than 30 years in the same position while remaining functional.  

These materials don’t exist. They are not commercially available yet. So, it’s complicated, it’s difficult, and we will need a lot of trials (and time) to get this right. 

How do you envision the field of materials science evolving in the context of space over the next decade?

I think materials science will inherently incorporate considerations for space applications. We’re standing at the edge of a revolutionary era in the space industry. To thrive beyond our home planet, we’ll need to replicate the infrastructures we take for granted daily.  

Whether you have a material that’s been used for seat belts on a Formula 1 car, or whether you have a biomaterial or self-healing material that’s been used for bones or structures on Earth, there may be possibilities that this material is going to be useful or groundbreaking for some applications in space. But we don’t fully know it yet. 

Our approach is to make sure that not just those operating in the space industry can access space, but also the industries that have a massive impact on Earth can get into space and have access to the space ecosystem. Anything that materials science has changed on Earth can be useful in space.