A team of NASA engineers is developing a material that is "blacker than pitch black" -- and in turn, improve the accuracy with which its instruments measure light.
The new material is a nanotech-based "paint" comprised of a thin coating of multi-walled carbon nanotubes, tiny hollow tubes made of carbon that are individually 10,000 times thinner than a human hair.
Not unlike a dense forest, the nanotube layer captures incoming light that ricochets off instrument components and subsequently contaminates results. (For an extremely light-sensitive tool, this can be a real issue.)
It's about 10 times better than the basic Z306 black paint NASA was using, absorbing 99.5 percent of the light that hits it.
The technology was first developed in 2007 by a team led by optical physicist John Hagopian, in parallel with a similar discovery by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. RPI's material is actually even darker than NASA's, but the latter is more durable, an important attribute when used in the harsh environmental conditions of space.
The key to that durability: a highly adhesive underlayer on which to grow the nanotubes.
The scientists are currently testing the new nanotube paint on the Ocean Radiometer for Carbon Assessment, a new instrument designed to measure marine photosynthesis. The team is using two techniques: growing the nanotubes directly on the instrument itself, and producing sheets of nanotubes to handle less nanotube-friendly surfaces.
The next question is whether it holds up in space. If it does, the paint will help NASA measure extremely faint signals and observe unseen astronomical objects such as planets orbiting other stars.