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Engineers have now developed techniques to a produce materials as light as aerogel but many times stronger.
Aerogels are incredibly light, so light that the record holder, aerographene, boasts a density of just 0.16 mg/cm3. Currently, aerogels are used for insulation, tennis racquets, as a means of controlling oil spills, and were used on the NASA Stardust mission to collect samples from a comet’s tail. Unfortunately, despite its seemingly ephemeral nature, its very much a solid and will shatter if pressed hard enough, so its use is limited.
The new materials developed by the MIT/LLNL team aren’t aerogels, but are metamaterials. That is, artificial materials with properties that aren’t found in nature. The idea is to structure it, so that it has the lightness of aerogel, but is much stronger. The strength of the new materials comes from their geometric structure, not their chemical composition.
The technique used to make these materials is a variation of 3D printing, but at molecular scales.
If this works, the weight of rockets and spaceships is going to drop significantly, making access to space far less expensive. It will also make it possible for a far less power rocket to put into orbit far bigger payloads.