Carbon Nanotubes Are the New Blacker Than Black

The third-best thing about NASA’s announcement that it’s created carbon nanotubes one-nanometer diameter to make a paint blacker than black?

The time-dilating musical soundtrack of its video on the topic. It progresses from crunky ’90s electroclash, through ’80s-era dance and then, briefly, into Eddie Grant territory; it’s like a musical approximation of NASA/Doctor Who slash in my ears.

The second-best thing about the announcement? My friend Mistress Corruptia DePayne is just a hair closer to having an even blacker catsuit to match the sullen expression she wears to Abrasion Play Wednesdays at the old steel mill.

And the best thing about NASA’s announcement is, naturally: OMGALIENS!!1!!!

See, it goes like this: For space-based scientific equipment that looks for distant planets and stars, scientists and engineers need a paint that reflects as little light as possible. Any photons reflected of the surfaces of instruments may throw of observations. Says a NASA release, “help suppress errant light that has a funny way of ricocheting off instrument components and contaminating measurements.” That’s why they’re creating a paint out of carbon nanotubes one nanometer in diameter. “We can only use a scanning electron microscope to be able to see them,” says scientist Stephanie Getty.

Using a process called “catalyst-assisted chemical vapor deposition,” they grow nanotubes out of pure carbon on a substrate to build a material that absorbs 99.5% of the photos that smack into it. These puppies are one-nanometer across. The substance, says NASA, will “help scientists gather hard-to-obtain scientific measurements or observe currently unseen astronomical objects, like Earth-sized planets in orbit around other stars.”

Though the NASA team found out after starting work that scientists at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had developed a similar material in 2008:

“Our material isn’t quite as dark as theirs,” said John Hagopian, the principal investigator leading the development team. “But what we’re developing is 10 times blacker than current NASA paints that suppress system stray light. Furthermore, it will be robust for space applications,” he said.

That is an important distinction, said Carl Stahle, assistant chief of technology for Goddard’s Instrument Systems and Technology Division. Not all technology can be used in space because of the harsh environmental conditions encountered there. “That’s the real strength of this effort,” Stahle said. “The group is finding ways to apply new technology and fly it on our instruments.”

The technology may also have applications for Earth observation. The NASA article quotes engineer Leroy Sparr, “who is assessing its effectiveness on the Ocean Radiometer for Carbon Assessment (ORCA), a next-generation instrument that is designed to measure marine photosynthesis.”

[Link to the NASA article, via NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Twitter account, via author Caitlin R. Kiernan‘s Twitter account].

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