Email Print Share

"Space Case" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
Audio Play Audio
The Discovery Files podcast is available through iTunes or you can add the RSS feed to your podcast receiver. You can also access the series via AudioNow® by calling 641-552-8180 on any telephone.

Taking cues from humans who have a self-contained system to manage internal temperature through homeostasis, a team of researchers have developed a new material to self-regulate the temperature of the satellite. This material could prevent disruptions in tracking wildfires and other natural disasters or using day-to-day applications such as Google maps and Netflix.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Thermal upper wear.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

You'll most likely rely on a satellite two or three different ways today. GPS, movies, TV, radio -- beamed to us from the extreme void of space, where temperatures can vary as much as 260 degrees between being in sunlight and the Earth's shadow. Protecting the delicate workings of onboard gear by controlling a satellite's temperature is crucial. It's mostly done now using physical shutters or heat pipes that are heavy and drain system power. Engineers at USC, working with Northrop Grumman, are showing there's more than one way to "skin" a satellite.

They've developed an ultra-thin protective coating that automatically regulates the bird's temp. The material is less than half the thickness of a hair, with a textured surface. It's made of silicon and vanadium dioxide. Vanadium dioxide is a "phase-change" material. It works as an insulator at low temperatures and a conductor at high temps. Perfect for automatically radiating heat away from the satellite or letting it warm up.

Other advantages include its light weight and ability to work without having to be powered. The developers say the skin material could have some "down-to-earth" uses as well, such as covering buildings to help maintain temperatures. Bringing this advance from outer space to our personal space.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

General Restrictions:
Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation. Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.

Also Available:
Download the high-resolution JPG version of the image. (66.6 KB)

Use your mouse to right-click (Mac users may need to Ctrl-click) the link above and choose the option that will save the file or target to your computer.

MP3 icon
NSF podcasts are in mp3 format for easy download to desktop and laptops, as well as mobile devices capable of playing them.