Disaster has struck. A micrometeroid has hit the International Space Station (ISS), and the air inside has begun to rush out of the hole into the vacuum of space. But in a matter of seconds, before the station is destroyed, the hole seals itself and keeps the ISS and its crew intact.
This is a future safety scenario that could be possible thanks to a remarkable new piece of research from scientists at the University of Michigan and NASA, published in the journal ACS Macro Letters. They have developed a material that, when punctured, can "fix" itself and temporarily stop air rushing out. It is designed for use on a spacecraft, giving astronauts time to fix the hole properly before things escalate.
The self-healing material is essentially a reactive liquid between two layers of a solid polymer. In the research, a bullet from a rifle was shot into the material. This exposed the liquid inside to air in the environment, causing it to solidify. "Within seconds of coming into contact with the atmosphere, it goes from a liquid to a solid," lead author Scott Zavada from the University of Michigan told IFLScience. In the case of the ISS, it would be the escaping atmosphere of the station that seals the hole.
Co-author Timothy Scott, also from the University of Michigan, told IFLScience that the material wouldn’t be used as a structural component alone, but rather in tandem with other materials. "The intent is really to plug [the hole] very quickly," he said.
It’s not just intended for the ISS: other spacecraft, aircraft, fuel tanks, or even habitats on the Moon or Mars could make use of the material. And NASA is clearly interested as it funded this research, and more work is upcoming to further test its applications.
One other interesting feature of the material is that it works as intended even when it is thin; in fact, the thinner the better, in order to save on weight. In this research, the panels were one millimetre thick, but it could be produced on the order of tens to hundreds of microns thin.
You can check out the video of the material in action below.