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Intelligent Machines

Sharper Spacecraft

Today’s materials have limited capacity to withstand heat, forcing aerospace engineers to design spacecraft like the space shuttle with blunt noses and wing edges. Such shapes allow a layer of compressed air to form above the surfaces as the craft reenters the atmosphere-lowering the heat load but also making the craft less aerodynamic. A new ceramic, developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, might make possible spacecraft with sharper edges and pointed noses that slice through the air on their way to and from orbit. The ceramic withstands temperatures up to 2800 degrees C (today’s shuttle begins to sizzle at 1500 degrees). In a June test, fins made from the material will be attached to the nose of a Minuteman missile.

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