To boldly stick where no craft has stuck before
Spaceship Stardust? Virginia Tech researchers are trying to develop a substance that will allow a NASA spacecraft to return to Earth with asteroid dirt stuck to it.
Virginia Tech researchers are helping to design a sticky space probe that may one day bring home souvenirs of a trip to an asteroid.
While others will design the spacecraft, the NASA-backed project requires Tech's Center for Adhesive and Sealant Science to perfect the sticky part.
Why send adhesives to space? According to Tim Long, a Tech associate professor of chemistry, adhesives do a lot more than glue stuff together. They might just make the perfect space explorer.
"We can take a 'fingerprint' of an asteroid surface," he said.
Peel off a Band-Aid after wearing it a couple of days and take a good look at the sticky parts. There's a treasure trove of stuff on there - skin cells, dirt, maybe a couple of leg hairs.
Now imagine peeling a big Band-Aid off an asteroid and bringing it back to arth. You'd have all sorts of chemicals, minerals, dust particles and other space stuff that scientists go crazy for. And it would be a lot simpler and cheaper than sending somebody up there with a shovel. (Ever tried to shovel in zero gravity? It's not easy.)
NASA was interested enough in the idea to approve more than $300,000 for the two-year project, but the agency is not guaranteeing that the adhesive will ever get off the launchpad.
Spaceworks, an Arizona aerospace company, and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville are going to figure out most of the science and engineering. They called Tech's adhesives center for the Band-Aid part.
Except of course, it won't be a Band-Aid. It will have to be some sort of sticky substance that can survive extreme temperatures and a long space flight. It will have to pick up and hold both tiny molecules and big clumps of matter.
It will have to be quick, because the nine-armed spacecraft probably won't actually land on the asteroid - just "kiss and run," according to Derek Sears of the University of Arkansas.
And when it's all over, the adhesive will have to let go, dropping whatever it picked up without leaving sticky residue.
The right sticky stuff may not yet exist, but Tech's adhesives researchers are used to creating adhesives that never before existed.
"Virginia Tech is known for being able to do this," Long said. For instance, they're working on "smart" adhesives that stick until you tell them not to. That research, funded by a medical company, really would make a better Band-Aid.
Their research is all about seeing adhesives in new ways, said Long, and the asteroid project means seeing them in a "science fiction kind of way."
When his students hear about it, he said, they say, "Wow, that's so much different than a Post-it Note."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.