Chemists can help mankind "boldly go where no one has gone before." But space exploration doesn't begin and end with a shuttle traveling through space. Space exploration includes preparing engineering systems for launch, creating experiments to use in space and the space travel itself. Chemists play a role in every stage of space exploration.
Propulsion System Design
A major part of space travel is finding efficient and safe ways to propel space vehicles out of the Earth's orbit. Chemists play a vital role in helping design these new systems. They work on fuel propellants and use chemistry to develop new ideas for high-performance materials. For example, NASA recently chose a team of chemists and engineers to create green propellant technology. Green propellants are a nontoxic, high-performance fuels that are environmentally friendlier and safer to use than the typically used hydrazine fuel.
Understanding the stars, planets and other bodies in space requires a strong background in chemistry. A chemist can identify the composition of stars and other distant objects by analyzing the light spectrum they emit. Each molecule and element emits light at a specific frequency, so a chemist can use this information to determine the chemical components of an object in space.
NASA has sent robots to Mars to collect samples of the soil to learn more about the planet. A big part of space exploration involves sampling the soil and rocks on planets and moons in space and studying their composition. This identification process is done using chemistry. The information found can then be extrapolated to identify substances in a planet's core or even help astronauts identify a safe place to land on the surface.
Health in Space
Not only are astronauts traveling in space, but private space companies are exploring the idea of letting tourists take rides into space too. But space travel isn't without its risks and can be a strain on the human body. Chemists help create methods of making space travel safer for people's health. For example, a chemist from Wesleyan University is developing molecules that improve upon human cells' ability to withstand extreme pressure, radiation and temperature fluctuations.
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images