By Juliana Cherston and Joseph A. Paradiso
This coming February, the Cygnus NG-17 spacecraft will launch from NASA Wallops, in Virginia, on a routine resupply mission to the International Space Station. Amid the many tonnes of standard crew supplies, spacewalk equipment, computer hardware, and research experiments will be one unusual package: a pair of electronic textile swatches embedded with impact and vibration sensors. Soon after the spacecraft's arrival at the ISS, a robotic arm will mount the samples onto the exterior of Alpha Space's Materials ISS Experiment (MISSE) facility, and control-room operators back on Earth will feed power to the samples.
For the next six months, our team will conduct the first operational test of sensor-laden electronic fabrics in space, collecting data in real time as the sensors endure the harsh weather of low Earth orbit. We also hope that microscopic dust or debris, traveling at least an order of magnitude faster than sound, will strike the fabric and trigger the sensors.
Our eventual aim is to use such smart electronic textiles to study cosmic dust, some of which has interplanetary or even interstellar origins. Imagine if the protective fabric covering a spacecraft could double as an astrophysics experiment, but without adding excessive mass, volume, or power requirements. What if this smart skin could also measure the cumulative damage caused by orbital space debris and micrometeoroids too small to be tracked by radar? Could sensored textiles in pressured spacesuits give astronauts a sense of touch, as if the fabric were their own skin? In each case, electronic fabrics sensitive to vibrations and charge could serve as a foundational technology.