Space Ceramics


Ceramics are a field not only known to artists and hobbyists, but one that finds important applications in technical areas as well. While Advanced Heat Engines and Super Conducting ceramics are of interest, the space applications, or so-called thermal protection systems are probably generating the most interest at the moment, especially in the light of the current Mars Pathfinder mission and the Rover Sojourner, now conducting experiments on Mars. Ceramic space materials need to withstand temperatures from -250 F in the cold of space to entry temperatures that reach up to 3,000 F.

The Rover Sojourner itself is insulated with Solid Silica Aerogel, sometimes called "Solid Smoke", which is a ceramic related substance similar to glass. This material protects the Pathfinder from the cold vacuum of space and the carbon dioxide environment of Mars.

The Space Shuttle also uses ceramic materials, notably High-Temperature Reusable Surface Insulation Tiles, or HRSIs, which, as the name implies, protect the shuttle from the high temperature of re-entry and are reusable for about 100 space missions. The 24,300 tiles don't last forever though, and need to be replaced every now and then. A far cry from the methods of the ceramic artist, the silica fibre HRSI tiles are made by a laser beam assisted computer-controlled machine-tool system. Due to the fibrous structure of the tiles, these also need to be waterproofed. Another ceramic material, Flexible Insulation Blankets are also used on some of the upper surfaces of the orbiter.

With all the excitement being generated by the Mars Pathfinder Mission, I hope that many ceramic artists will broaden their horizon and have a look at some more technical uses for ceramics, such as space applications.

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