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Unlocking the Potential of Carbon: The Unsung Hero of Space Exploration and Beyond

Unlocking the Potential of Carbon: The Unsung Hero of Space Exploration and Beyond

June 17, 2024

Carbon, the building block of life on Earth, also holds a pivotal role in the vast expanse of space. It forms the foundation of organic molecules and is present throughout the universe, influencing biological and technological realms.

NASA’s recent discovery of the carbon-rich Bennu asteroid highlights carbon’s significant presence beyond our planet. This discovery underscores the importance of understanding carbon’s properties, especially its thermal conductivity, for advancing space exploration and developing technologies capable of withstanding the harsh conditions of space.

But how does this element, so integral to life, contribute to our endeavours in space? Exploring carbon’s role reveals its surprising and crucial impact on our journey beyond Earth.

The Role of Carbon in Space Exploration

In the unforgiving environment of space, managing extreme temperatures is critical for the success of any mission. Imagine a spacecraft journeying through the cosmos—at one moment, it faces the sun’s scorching heat; the next, it is plunged into the icy darkness of space. Efficient thermal management is vital to protect sensitive instruments and ensure spacecraft survival – this is where the thermal conductivity of materials, particularly carbon-based ones, becomes crucial.

Carbon’s ability to efficiently conduct heat makes it invaluable for space missions. It helps regulate temperatures within spacecraft, shielding instruments from thermal extremes. However, the unique thermal properties of carbon-based materials present both opportunities and challenges. Some carbon materials are excellent conductors, ideal for dissipating heat, while others act as insulators, which can trap heat if not appropriately managed.

Understanding these properties is essential for leveraging carbon in space exploration. By mastering how carbon transfers heat, engineers can design spacecrafts that survive and thrive in the harsh conditions of space. This knowledge ensures consistent performance across the wide range of temperatures encountered in space, making carbon an indispensable asset in exploring beyond our planet.

Bennu Asteroid Discovery: A Carbon-rich Treasure Trove

In 2016, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission embarked on a journey to Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars. This ancient celestial body, rich in carbon, offers a window into the early solar system’s materials that formed planets. The mission’s discovery of significant carbon content is profound, suggesting the presence of organic molecules—the fundamental components of life in space.

four views of asteroid Bennu along with a corresponding global mosaic

Figure 1. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona. This image shows four views of asteroid Bennu along with a corresponding global mosaic. The images were taken on Dec. 2, 2018, by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s PolyCam camera.


Bennu’s carbon-rich composition provides valuable insights into the primordial conditions of our solar system and holds potential for developing innovative materials for space exploration. By analyzing Bennu’s carbon, scientists can explore the origins of life and advance the creation of carbon-based technologies tailored for space missions. This discovery highlights the critical role that carbon plays, both in understanding our universe’s past and in paving the way for future technological advancements.

Understanding Thermal Conductivity in Space

Thermal conductivity measures a material’s ability to conduct heat—a critical property in spacecraft design. In the vastness of space, temperatures swing from the blistering heat of direct sunlight to the frigid cold of shadowed areas, often approaching near-absolute zero. Engineers must understand how materials respond to such temperature changes to navigate these extremes.

Conducting thermal analysis, for instance, utilizing advanced instruments like the Measurement Platform Series from Thermtest offers a detailed understanding of these reactions through thermal conductivity tests. By measuring and analyzing how materials transfer heat, engineers can optimize spacecraft components to endure the severe thermal stresses of space. This understanding is crucial for ensuring the durability and safety of spacecrafts, allowing them to perform reliably in the hostile environment of space.

Carbon-Carbon Composites:

These are made from carbon fibres embedded in a carbon matrix, offering a lightweight yet robust solution. They can withstand and dissipate high temperatures, making them ideal for components exposed to the most intense heat, such as the leading edges of spacecraft and heat shields. During atmospheric re-entry, these parts experience the highest thermal loads, and carbon-carbon composites excel in managing these extreme conditions due to their exceptional thermal conductivity and high melting points.

Carbon-carbon brake discs and brake pads

Figure 2. Carbon-carbon brake discs and brake pads have been the standard component of the brake systems of Formula One racing cars since 1976.

Carbon Foam:

Researchers are increasingly exploring this material for its unique thermal management properties. Carbon foam is a lightweight, porous structure that combines strength with the ability to dissipate heat efficiently. Its high surface area allows for effective heat distribution, making it suitable for applications where maintaining low temperatures is critical. In spacecraft, carbon foam protects electronics and other heat-sensitive components, ensuring they remain operational under varying thermal stresses.

Advanced Carbon-Based TPS Materials:

Innovations in carbon-based Thermal Protection System (TPS) materials continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in thermal management. For example, new formulations and manufacturing techniques are enhancing these materials’ thermal performance and durability. Carbon-carbon composites are being engineered to offer even higher thermal conductivity and strength, while carbon foams are being developed with improved structural integrity and heat dissipation capabilities.

Thermal Protection System Integration:

Beyond the materials themselves, integrating these carbon-based solutions into the overall spacecraft design is a complex process. Engineers must consider how these materials interact with other spacecraft components and the broader thermal management system, including ensuring that heat is effectively routed away from critical areas and that the TPS materials do not degrade over the mission’s lifespan.

Real-World Applications:

Using carbon-based materials in TPS is more than just theoretical. These advanced materials are actively employed in various missions. For instance, NASA’s Mars rovers utilize carbon-carbon composites to protect their heat shields during atmospheric entry, and the use of carbon foam has been explored for cooling systems in satellites.

comparison of three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Figure 3. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | This grouping of two test rovers and a flight spare provides a graphic comparison of three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The setting is JPL Mars Yard testing area.

By harnessing carbon’s exceptional properties, we can develop advanced thermal protection systems that meet the rigorous demands of space travel. These materials ensure that spacecraft can endure the harsh thermal environment of space, protect their vital systems, and maintain mission integrity. As space exploration continues to evolve, the role of carbon in TPS will only grow, driving innovations that make future missions safer and more successful.

Advantages of Carbon for Long-Duration Space Missions


Figure 4. Teams of engineers and scientists nationwide are dedicated to pioneering the technologies required for astronauts to eventually inhabit and operate on Mars, ensuring their safe return to Earth.

Long-duration space missions, such as those aimed at Mars or beyond, pose unique and formidable challenges. These missions demand materials that can endure the relentless rigours of space for extended periods. Carbon is an ideal candidate for these applications with its exceptional durability and resilience.

Durability in Harsh Conditions

Carbon materials, such as carbon-fibre composites and carbon-carbon structures, maintain their structural integrity and thermal performance over prolonged exposure to space conditions. This is crucial as these missions often last months or even years, during which materials must withstand the stresses of launch and travel and the ongoing exposure to the space environment.

Space is an extraordinarily hostile environment characterized by intense radiation, extreme temperature fluctuations, and the vacuum of space. As spacecraft venture further from Earth, they encounter radiation from the Sun and cosmic rays that can degrade materials over time. Carbon’s natural resilience to radiation makes it a robust choice for shielding and structural components. Its ability to remain stable under varying thermal conditions ensures that spacecraft can handle the cyclical heating and cooling as they move in and out of planetary shadows or during orbital changes.

Resistance to Thermal Stress

Spacecraft experience cyclical heating and cooling as they move in and out of planetary shadows or during orbital changes. Carbon materials excel in managing these thermal stresses due to their high thermal conductivity and stability. They can quickly dissipate heat during intense exposure to sunlight and retain structural integrity in the cold vacuum of space. This ability to handle thermal fluctuations is critical for maintaining the functionality of spacecraft and protecting their components from damage. By leveraging carbon’s thermal properties, we can design spacecraft that thrive in the ever-changing conditions of space.

Supporting Human Presence Beyond Earth

For missions that aim to establish a human presence on other planets, the reliability of materials becomes even more critical. Carbon’s ability to endure the stresses of space travel supports the journey and the establishment of habitats and infrastructure. Carbon-based materials can be used to construct shelters and protective barriers that safeguard astronauts from harsh environmental conditions and temperature extremes.

Lightweight and High Strength

Carbon materials’ lightweight nature is another significant advantage for space missions. Reducing the mass of spacecraft components is crucial for minimizing launch costs and improving fuel efficiency. Carbon composites provide high strength while keeping weight to a minimum, making them ideal for long-duration missions where payload weight is a critical consideration.

Innovations in Carbon Technology

As we push further into space, ongoing innovations in carbon technology are likely to play a pivotal role. Research into carbon nanotubes, carbon foams, and graphene-based materials opens up new possibilities for spacecraft design and functionality. These materials offer exceptional properties that can enhance the performance and safety of long-duration space missions, from improved thermal management to advanced structural integrity.

As space agencies and private companies continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what’s possible, carbon will undoubtedly remain at the forefront of this endeavour, enabling us to reach farther and stay longer in the harsh environment of space.

Innovations in Carbon-based Space Technology

The future of space exploration is intricately linked to the advancements in carbon-based materials. Innovative carbon technologies are revolutionizing spacecraft design and functionality as we push further into the cosmos.

Carbon-Carbon Composites and Carbon Foam

These materials are at the forefront of spacecraft construction due to their lightweight and heat-resistant properties. Carbon-carbon composites are robust and stable at high temperatures, ideal for thermal protection systems and structural components. Carbon foam, with its porous structure, excels in dissipating heat efficiently, protecting critical systems from thermal stresses.

Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon Nanotubes

Figure 5. Carbon Nanotubes

Known for their extraordinary strength and thermal conductivity, carbon nanotubes offer groundbreaking possibilities for future space structures. Their exceptional mechanical properties make them suitable for constructing lightweight yet robust components, capable of withstanding the harsh conditions of space. These nanotubes can also enhance the thermal management of spacecrafts, ensuring that heat is effectively conducted away from sensitive areas.



Figure 6. Graphene

A single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice; graphene is a marvel of modern materials science. Its unique properties are being harnessed for innovative applications such as solar sails. These ultra-lightweight sails use graphene to capture the momentum of photons from the Sun, providing a novel propulsion method that could enable long-distance space travel without traditional fuel. This concept could revolutionize how we think about interstellar travel, offering a sustainable and efficient means to explore the far reaches of our solar system and beyond.

Transforming Space Technology

These innovations highlight the transformative potential of carbon in space technology. As we continue to explore and expand our presence in space, the ability to develop and utilize advanced carbon materials will be crucial. Carbon’s exceptional properties—its strength, thermal conductivity, and lightweight nature—make it indispensable for future space missions. Each new development in carbon technology brings us closer to realizing ambitious goals in space exploration, enabling humanity to reach farther and achieve more in the final frontier.

The role of carbon in space technology is rapidly evolving, driven by ongoing research and innovation. From carbon-carbon composites and carbon foam to carbon nanotubes and graphene, these materials are reshaping the landscape of space exploration. As we continue to harness and refine these technologies, carbon will undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of our journey into space, supporting the bold ventures that will define the next era of human exploration.


Carbon’s versatility and exceptional properties make it an indispensable element for the future of space exploration. Its role in thermal management and the development of advanced materials is critical for the success of space missions. Understanding and optimizing carbon’s thermal conductivity unlocks new possibilities for safer, more efficient, and ambitious explorations. As space agencies and private companies push the boundaries of what’s possible, carbon will continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring the safety and efficiency of space travel.

With each innovation in carbon-based technology, we move closer to understanding the cosmos and securing our place within it. From thermal protection systems to revolutionary propulsion methods, carbon’s unique attributes are central to overcoming the challenges of space exploration. As we develop and refine these technologies, carbon will remain at the forefront, enabling us to achieve our most daring goals in space.


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