Down to Earth: Space blankets

14 August 2017

Interview with

Stuart Higgins

Down to Earth takes a look at tech intended for space which has since found a new home down here on Earth. And this week physicist Stuart Higgins is wrapped up in a Space Blanket...

Stuart - What happens when the science and technology of space come down to Earth?

This is Down to Earth from the Naked Scientists. I’m Dr Stuart Higgins and in this mini series I explore how technology developed for space is used in other applications here on Earth.

This episode: how a space station in critical danger led to the development of the shiny metal blankets that help stop marathon runners and hikers from getting hyperthermia here on Earth…

Before the International Space Station there was Skylab. Launched by the United States in 1973 as a space base laboratory, Skylabs deployment didn’t go quite to plan. During takeoff, part of the space stations meteorite and heat shield tore away and, without shielding, temperatures inside the spacecraft quickly rose threatening the mission.

NASA needed a quick solution that could be put in place easily by astronauts who were about to travel up to Skylab on the next rocket. They needed a material that could reflect heat over a large area and also be folded up neatly in order to get it into space.
After much consideration, they settled on a floppy fabric-like heat shield made up of aluminium coated plastic supported by sheets of nylon.The shield was transported to space folded, pushed through the side of the space station, and opened up like a giant umbrella. The metal side of the plastic reflected the infrared radiation from the Sun back into space successfully keeping the damaged part of Skylab cool… they’d made a space blanket

Metal coated plastics weren’t new to NASA, they’d previously developed them during Project Echo where giant metal covered balloons were placed into space to act as reflectors for radio signals sent from Earth. While the process of metallisation had been around long before that, it was the stringent requirements for manufacturing these materials for use in space that led to the development of a much wider industry.

That ultimately led to the creation of thin, thermally reflective sheets, sometimes referred to as space blankets or emergency blankets. You’ll see marathon runners around the world using them to keep warm at the end of races, or on people stuck up mountains trying to maintain their body temperature while they wait for help. By placing the metal side towards the body, the infrared radiation is reflected back towards the person rather than the other way round as it was used in skylab.

Metallised plastic films are also used in a huge plethora of ways including food packaging, clothing, and continue to be used by space agencies to help protect current spacecraft. So that’s how the development of metal coated plastic for space led to emergency blankets and much more here on Earth.

That was Down to Earth from the Naked Scientists. And join me again soon to learn more about space technology that’s changing lives back on Earth.

 

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