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Zero gravity: Graphene for space applications

Researchers and students in the Graphene Flagship are preparing for two exciting experiments in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) to test the viability of graphene for space applications.

Graphene Flagship

Researchers and students in the Graphene Flagship are preparing for two exciting experiments in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) to test the viability of graphene for space applications. Both experiments will launch between 6-17th November 2017, testing graphene in zero-gravity conditions to determine its potential in space applications including light propulsion and thermal management.

The Graphene Flagship is a pan-European research initiative dedicated to developing new technologies based on graphene, the single-atom-thick allotrope of carbon with excellent electrical, mechanical, thermal and optical properties. A fundamental aspect of the Graphene Flagship is training students and young researchers. These ambitious space-related experiments are an excellent opportunity for Flagship students and researchers to gain new experiences in cutting-edge research. Join the Graphene Flagship as we follow the progress - from the early stages in the laboratory to the moments of weightlessness!

In a fully student-led experiment, a team of Graphene Flagship graduate students from Delft Technical University (TU Delft; Netherlands) will participate in ESA Education's Drop Your Thesis! programme. Their successful proposal will use microgravity conditions in the ZARM Drop Tower (Bremen, Germany) to test graphene for light sails. By shining laser light on suspended graphene-membranes from Flagship partner Graphenea, the experiment will test how much thrust can be generated, which could lead to a new way of propelling satellites in space using light from lasers or the sun.

The PhD student team - named GrapheneX - consists of Santiago Cartamil Bueno, Davide Stefani, Vera Janssen, Rocco Gaudenzi, all research students in Herre van der Zant's research group in TU Delft. Santiago Cartamil Bueno, project leader for the GrapheneX team, said "We split tasks between the team and things are working well. We are very ambitious with the quality of the experiments. We really want to do it properly, so we are committed to do real science in this project."

ESA Education's Drop Your Thesis! programme offers students the opportunity to design an experiment for the ZARM Drop Tower in Bremen, Germany, which simulates the low gravity and vacuum conditions of space. The 146 m ZARM Drop Tower creates extreme microgravity conditions down to one millionth of the Earth's gravitational force. In vacuum, a capsule containing the experiment is catapulted up and down the tower, providing a total of 9.3 seconds of weightlessness.

Running concurrently is an experiment investigating how graphene can improve efficiency in heat transfer in loop heat pipes - cooling systems used extensively in satellites and aerospace instruments. The experiment is a collaboration between Graphene Flagship partners at the Microgravity Research Centre, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; the Cambridge Graphene Centre, University of Cambridge, UK; Institute for Organic Synthesis and Photoreactivity, National Research Council of Italy (CNR), Italy; and Leonardo Spa, Italy, a global leader in aerospace, producing of a variety of components and systems for space applications.

A significant part of the loop heat pipe is the wick, typically made of porous metal. In this experiment, the wicks will be coated with different types of graphene-related materials to improve the efficiency of the heat pipe. The coated wicks will be tested in a low-gravity parabolic flight operated by ESA in partnership with Novespace, France. During each 3-hour flight, the specially modified plane will make a series of 30 parabolic ascents with around 25 seconds of weightlessness in each parabola.

Involved in the experiment are Graphene Flagship researchers Vanja Miškovi? and Fabio Iermano, both working at the Microgravity Research Centre, and Lucia Lombardi and Yarjan Samad, both at the Cambridge Graphene Centre. As well as the on-ground experiments, the young researchers will experience weightlessness on board the low-gravity flights in November.

"I'm really excited because this will be my first zero gravity experience," said Lombardi. "The idea is to use graphene to improve the thermal conductivity and the capillary pressure by growing a sponge in the pores of the wicks," she added.

"We want to test different kinds of coatings since the graphene and graphene oxide have different properties, but we are hoping to achieve good results with both of the coatings," added Miškovi?. "I'm very excited, I know that not a lot of people get this opportunity."

Andrea Ferrari (University of Cambridge), Science and Technology Officer of the Graphene Flagship and chair of its management panel added "Space is the new frontier for the Graphene Flagship. These initial experiments will test the viability of graphene-enabled devices for space applications. The combined strengths of the Graphene Flagship, Flagship partners and the European Space Agency as well global leader in aerospace applications Leonardo, give a strong basis to reach a high technology readiness level."

Jari Kinaret (Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden), Director of the Graphene Flagship, said "These two projects exemplify the two-fold character of the Graphene Flagship: the loop heat pipe project is targeting a specific application, while the light sail project is firmly linked to basic research and builds upon the unique combination of properties that only graphene can offer. I am particularly proud of the fact that one of these projects was initiated by students working on area completely disconnected from space applications: this demonstrates the creativity of the next generation of researchers, and shows the sometimes surprising links between different parts of our Flagship - or maybe I should say spaceship?"

Follow the progress at

Additional Information:

Graphene Graphene is one of the most interesting and versatile materials known to date. The world's first two dimensional material, this single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice has a set of unique and outstanding properties. As well as being the thinnest, strongest and lightest material, graphene is flexible, impermeable to molecules and extremely electrically and thermally conductive. As the world strives to maintain its pace of innovation, graphene has much to offer. Graphene is helping to facilitate the next generation of technology. For example, the strong and flexible nature of graphene makes flexible displays and bendable batteries possible. Its excellent sensing ability can be used in the next generation of wearable electronics and to develop building blocks for the internet of things. Graphene's unique combination of properties coupled with its ease of incorporation into composite materials mean that it can enhance the composite world. Graphene is also paving the way for novel diagnosis and treatments such as in the realm of drug delivery and biosensors. Graphene-based technologies are proving integral to the new generation of communications, such as 5G, enabling high performance optical communication systems through ultra-fast and compact optoelectronic devices.

Social Media Twitter Hashtag: #ZeroGGraphene

About the European Space Agency Education Programme The European Space Agency (ESA) Education Programme has the objective to inspire and motivate young people to enhance their literacy and competence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM disciplines), and to pursue a career in these fields, in the space domain in particular. To this end, it offers a number of exciting activities that range from training and classroom activities that use space as a teaching and learning context for school teachers and pupils, to real space projects for university students.

About the European Space Agency The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe's gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe's space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world. ESA is one of the few space agencies in the world to combine responsibility in nearly all areas of space activity: from Earth observation, space science, human spaceflight, exploration and launchers to navigation, telecommunications, technology and operations. ESA is an international organisation with 22 Member States. By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, it can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country.

About the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) The Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) is a research institute of the University of Bremen focused on the investigation of gravity-dependent phenomena and space-related research. With a height of 146 meters the Bremen Drop Tower is the main laboratory of ZARM and the only laboratory of this kind in Europe. It offers the opportunity for short-term experiments in weightlessness and has acquired international renown during the last 25 years for offering microgravity conditions of the highest quality. Owing to the catapult system, a construction developed by ZARM engineers, the experiment duration has been extended to 9.3 seconds - unmatched by any other drop facility worldwide. Due to its excellent microgravity conditions scientists from all over the world visit the Bremen Drop Tower in order to experiment in different fields of fundamental research like astrophysics, biology, chemistry, combustion, fluid dynamics, fundamental physics, and materials sciences or to conduct technology tests preparing and qualifying hardware for future space missions.

About Novespace A subsidiary of CNES (French Spatial Study National Center), Novespace was established in 1986 for the purpose of promoting micro-weightlessness as a tool for scientific experimentation. After more than 130 parabolic flight campaigns carried out from 1988 to 1996 on board the Caravelle Zero G, Novespace took the Airbus A300 ZERO-G into service in 1997, replaced by an Airbus A310 in 2014, owned by Novespace. Based at the Bordeaux-Mérignac airport zone, Novespace organizes an average of six parabolic flight campaigns annually, principally for the account of space agencies (CNES, ESA, DLR, JAXA, etc.) within the framework of their scientific and technological research programmes. The company also used the A300 ZERO-G for missions for observing atmospheric re-entry of the Cryotechnic Main Stage (CMS) of the Ariane 5 rocket. Novespace has carried out more than 130 parabolic flight campaigns on board the A300 ZERO-G and its successor the A310 ZERO-G and more than 13000 parabolas. This is equivalent to 80 hours of accumulated weightlessness.


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