NASA paint kills that new car smell, saves satellites too

NASA engineers developing coating that keeps bad gases from escaping and damaging people, technical systems

NASA image of pourous paint
NASA engineers have created a spray paint that seals in the gases that most typically create that new car smell almost everyone loves.

The problem is, that smell - or outgases as NASA calls them -- is generated by chemicals and solvents used to manufacture dashboards, car seats, carpeting and other components that are not particularly good to breathe and as NASA points out, some can be detrimental to sensitive satellite instruments containing the same ingredients.

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"Outgassed solvents, epoxies, lubricants, and other materials aren't especially wholesome for contamination-sensitive telescope mirrors, thermal-control units, high-voltage electronic boxes, cryogenic instruments, detectors and solar arrays, either. As a result, NASA engineers are always looking for new techniques to prevent these gases from adhering to instrument and spacecraft surfaces and potentially shortening their lives," NASA stated. 

Engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center what they call a patent-pending sprayable paint that adsorbs these gaseous molecules and stops them from affixing to instrument components. The paint is made from zeolite, a mineral used in industry for water purification and a colloidal silica binder that acts as the glue holding the coating together.  "The new molecular adsorber is highly permeable and porous - attributes that trap the outgassed contaminants. Because it doesn't contain volatile organics, the material itself doesn't cause additional outgassing," NASA stated. 

NASA noted that many instrument developers use zeolite-coated cordierite devices that look like hockey pucks to absorb gases but that technology requires multiple units, which require complex mounting hardware that can be heavy and take up a lot of real estate.

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"The new paint, however, overcomes these limitations by providing a low-mass alternative. Because technicians can spray the paint directly onto surfaces, no extra mounting equipment is necessary. In addition, technicians can coat adhesive strips or tape and then place these pieces in strategic locations within an instrument, spacecraft cavity, or vacuum system, further simplifying adsorber design. This is an easy technology to insert at a relatively low risk and cost.  The benefits are significant," said co-Principal Investigator Mark Hasegawa, of NASA Goddard in a statement. 

NASA says a number of industry players are interested in the new spray including Northrop Grumman; the European Space Agency; the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder; and Spica Technologies.  In addition, NASA's ICESat2 ATLAS project is evaluating its use, pending the outcome of additional tests.

NASA said its development team plans to tweak the paint's recipe to enhance its performance and experiment with different pigments, mainly black, to create a coating to absorb stray light that can overcome the light scientists actually want to gather. NASA said it also believes the technology could be used on the International Space Station or future space habitats to trap pollutants and odors in crew quarters.

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