US Military are using smart metals similar 
to those found at the Roswell Crash In 1947

"Time is ripe for the insertion of smart structures and materials into space systems."

                                                                                                                 Dr. Keith Denoger
Airforce Research Laboratories

"Imagine seeing a bullet shot through a sheet of material, only to have the material instantly "heal" behind the bullet! Remember, this is not science fiction. Self-healing materials actually exist, and LaRC scientists are working to unravel their secrets.
What we did at NASA-Langley was basically dissect that material to answer the question, 'how does it do that?'" McGowan said. "By doing so, we can actually get down to computational modeling of these materials at the molecular level. Once we understand the material's behavior at that level, then we can create designer 'smart' materials,"

                                                                                           Anna McGowan,
                                                                                                                         Program Manager for the Morphing Project at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Does the above quote sound familiar? Metal that is cut, only to 'heal' itself? We have all become accustomed to hearing about technological advances that were initially spearheaded by secret military research projects. The Atom Bomb was developed during the Second World War amid incredibly tight security, and the first most people knew about Stealth technology was when the bat-like fighter-bombers were being rolled out of the hangers to attack the military apparatus of Iraq. Many of us are expecting a new dawn of technological wizardry to make its debut appearance during the current ‘war on terrorism’.

Cosmic Conspiracies would like to share with you some remarkable information relating to current cutting-edge technological research being conducted on behalf of the U.S. military that we believe could be connected to the materials found from the Roswell crash. We are stunned by it, not least because of how freely available much of the data is on the Internet. Finding this freely available material, however, is extremely difficult unless you are aware of the specific keywords being utilised, or, as in our case, you have a researcher of the calibre of Martin Cosnette. This is not common knowledge, despite the amazing jump in technology implied by the rapid advances being made right now.

Click on the picture below to see a simulation of what the smart materials will be used for.

Click to download Quicktime Movie Player

Image courtesy of Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center.

The above picture is an artists impression that was drawn from witness' accounts of  the Roswell craft. We think its uncanny how similar it looks to the craft in the movie simulation which was recently released by NASA! The image was drawn by William Louis McDonald and taken from the book 'The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters', by Ronald Story, 2001.

Amazing advances are being made in the development of new metal alloys. These alloys have remarkable characteristics, in that they will change shape upon the application of an electric current or magnetic field. They change shape, or ‘morph’ as the researchers prefer to say, rapidly and with some considerable force. They are termed ‘compact hybrid actuators’, a mouthful of engineering jargon, so we would prefer to call them ‘living metals’. Why? Because these alloys incorporate advanced nano-technology that is designed to enable them to mimic living systems in their versatility and dynamism. The list of potential applications seems endless, and the U.S. military is funding a variety of related research programs exploring the full range of options. Self-healing wings that flex and react like living organisms, versatile bombers that double as agile jet fighters, and swarms of tiny unmanned aircraft are just a few of the science-fiction-like possibilities that these next-generation technologies could make feasible in the decades ahead.

Just so that you don’t think this all sounds like drawing-board ideas being dreamt up by some egg-head think-tank, there is a considerable body of evidence to show that the testing stage for some of these alloys has already taken place.

a close-up of a smart metal sample... see how it can morph! We have accessed over 130 documents so far, including pictures and video footage, budgets and names of project leaders and their departments/companies involved. This technology is being incorporated into prototype applications right now. These include morphing aeroforms in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and fighter aircraft, morphing rotor-blades in helicopters, in-flight navigation, guidance and control systems for small missiles, satellite technology (especially with respect to optical systems), and sonar-absorbing materials for submarines. If you watch the video animation above, you will see that a plane with flappable wings is one of the goals of this project.

These active and complex metal alloys are being designed to be used in ‘exo-skeletons’ to be worn by battle-field soldiers, creating ‘Robo-cop’ style advances in G.I. Joe’s combat performance. 

The U.S. Military are currently inviting applications for between $30-40m of research grants to find ways of facilitating neural transmission between the soldier’s brain waves and his living metal exo-skeleton. They are not expecting mere ‘incremental’ progress, either. The projects are 3-year terms in length, and many of them are nearing completion or are already accomplished. There is a palpable sense of urgency to this research, and we think this reflects the rapid advances being made in these projects.

The research is being conducted by a number of private-sector aerospace consortiums (including the likes of Boeing, M.I.T., Moog and Lockheed Martin), as well as several university departments in receipt of grants from the U.S. Military. 

The entire project is being supported by the following military organisations: the US Army Research Office, the Office Of Naval Research, NASA Langley Research Center (yes, they’re military too!), and (wait for it…) the Space Operations Vehicle Technology Office, AFRL/VAS at Wright Patterson AFB. 

As you probably already know, there's a hangar at Wright Patterson Air Force base that contains very highly classified material, believed to be Roswell and/or other ET remains, so tightly controlled that even Barry Goldwater, a US Senator and Major General in the USAF Reserve, was denied access.We are intrigued by this final link, as you will see in our discoveries below!

Other projects that involve the shape memory alloys include vortex wake control (vortex tabs on control planes), smart wings, smart skins (self and radiated noise cancellation) smart panel (structure acoustic and vibration isolation) and they are to be used in the construction of space laser weapons in the future.

Morphing Project Program Manager lets slip that the 
smart materials they are working on could be back engineered!

We were staggered at the remarks on Langleys AFB website made by Anna McGowan, program manager for the Morphing Project at NASA's Langley Research Center (which is a part of this project, but not the main company).

She says:

"Among the exotic "smart" materials being developed by the Morphing Project, shape-memory alloys are relatively ordinary. Imagine seeing a bullet shot through a sheet of material, only to have the material instantly "heal" behind the bullet! Remember, this is not science fiction. Self-healing materials actually exist, and LaRC scientists are working to unravel their secrets.

"What we did at NASA-Langley was basically dissect that material to answer the question, 'how does it do that?'" McGowan said. "By doing so, we can actually get down to computational modeling of these materials at the molecular level. Once we understand the material's behavior at that level, then we can create designer 'smart' materials," she added.

LaRC is also developing customized variations of piezoelectric materials. These substances link electric voltage to motion. If you contort a piezoelectric material a voltage is generated. Conversely, if you apply a voltage, the material will contort.

The above statement seems odd to us. Why would you strip down technology to see how it works if you had built it in the first place? Or does this mean that NASA-Langley did not make the material, but are in fact back-engineering it?


M o r p h i n g   M e t a l s
We've waited a little while before releasing this information.  That was partly because we wondered whether the head of the Compact Hybrid Actuation Program (CHAP) would reply to our extensive questions, and partly because of the following:

When we first made it known that we thought we had come across something awesome to do with advanced ‘morphing metal’ technology, there was some mention that this was already common knowledge.  We assumed, then, that other researchers and commentators, who had questioned our judgement, would come forward with the references and data that we had discovered, and ‘show us up’, as we say here in Britain.  Instead, we have had many people asking us when we’re releasing our data, and no one showing us how this is an ‘old story’.

Now, we are not omnipotent.  There may be some people out there who know all about this already, but the feedback we have received indicates that, to the vast majority of people out there, this is entirely new material. No one else is carrying this story except Cosmic Conspiracies.  If that’s because they don’t think it’s important, then that’s up to them.  We have been interested in UFOlogy for some considerable time, and read a lot of material, both in magazines and on-line, and this material is news to us. We remain excited by it, not necessarily because it individually blows the lid off the ‘seeding technology’ business between the US Military and private industry/academic research labs, but because, taken in the context of the claims of Colonel Philip Corso and others, it adheres to a pattern that is noticeable, and significant.

So we will leave it to others whether this is news-worthy, or otherwise.  We’ve given others the chance to break this story if they think we are trawling over old ground, and they haven’t.  This is a story that we think should be heard.  So here it is…

These summaries of ‘morphing metal’ technologies have been gleaned from the extensive DARPA site, the cutting edge research organisation that is part of the U.S. military.  The ‘state-of-play’ that is described on the surface is incredible enough, but when you start to dig a little deeper, and put a few connections together, the full potential for this technology becomes self-evident.

1. "DARPA and the ARO have been developing active control applications of smart materials and structures over the last 6 years" (2000). So although this is a relatively recent programme exploring the potential for these technologies, the degree of practical application already managed would suggest an exciting level of success. The DARPA organisation directs cutting edge research which is initially speculative, with a high probability of failure, but also with the potential for occasional bursts of brilliance.

2. The actuators currently used in the wings of certain aircraft are facilitating 'morphing airfoil technology', whereby the shape of the aero-form can be altered mid-flight to maximize a particular manouevre or flight performance.   "Adding the active member into the control system significantly increases the controllability of the torsional modes for a marginal (0.1%) increase in power."   Military researchers and developers are succeeding in making aero-forms with wings that change shape with very little power usage, and no moving parts.

So, in the case of a fighter aircraft or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), the variability of the shape of the aero-form allows optimization for both 'subsonic interdiction' and also 'supersonic intercept missions'. In other words, an aircraft could assume one shape for flying towards a mission target, then take on another form for performing more rigorous manouevres when in action.  This extends mission performance significantly.  This is well known in some quarters, although it may still surprise many.  But, from what we have been reading, we think that this is the tip of the ice-berg!

The actuation devices enable surfaces to be controlled without the need for a traditional steering mechanism or driving hardware, increasing performance and structural stability. The devices are electrically driven, delivering a high force potential quickly. In practice, the shape of the wing actually re-contours whilst under significant external stresses, and then returns to its rest position without displacement after the applied electrical current has been stopped. In the case of missiles, thin film shape memory alloys might be used in nose control systems as compact navigation, guidance and control technologies.

3. Various alloys have been developed that retain a shape memory.  Some of these actuators perform mechanically upon the application of a magnetic field only.  For instance, that NiTinol, Ni-free Titanium and ferromagnetic Smart Memory Alloys can be "energized by [a] magnetic field".  We think that this property may certainly have a connection with UFO technology, insofar as it has been generally reported; unidentified aero-forms that change shape mid-flight, and have hazy appearances that relate to an energy field pervasive around the UFO at the time. There are many magnetic anomalies reported by witnesses and researchers, and a correlation between changing form and magnetic field effects appears to be an important consideration.

4. A non-military application that has been cited by CHAP researchers (who may be anxious to see their research put to some beneficial use) is in the use of Braille. We understand this to mean that 'writing' could be induced upon a smooth metallic surface, that can then return to its flattened states for continual reuse. One can then imagine a scrolling metallic script upon a metal interface that will allow Braille readers to access, say, an electronic book with ease.  It is a wonderful possibility.

5. It is mentioned that the architectures of the actuators are complex, and an allusion to an ‘organic system’ is given when talking about some of these remarkable metal alloys.  Upon the stimulus of an external command the powered actuator will be able to produce a mechanical force autonomously, and respond to a degree of complexity hitherto unimagined.  Given the incredible leaps in information technology that have been made over the past couple of decades, the level of command detail for a ‘morphing metal’ is very great indeed.  If they are as adaptive as is being reported in the scientific papers, then their flexibility could certainly mimic living systems, like muscles.  For instance, this quote is made by the Sarcos research team:

"These new actuators are similar in architecture to biological systems (elements arranged in parallel-series assemblies), but use very different building blocks. As in biological systems, the individual elements are optimized for best performance around one operating point…
"The small elements forming these actuation system achieve high power and energy density by using combustible fuel energy sources and efficient energy conversion via oscillatory and sometimes resonant processes. The power produced by the sources will be modulated at the individual element level rather by means of lossy components such as valves and power transistors, thereby providing power on demand with low power quiescent state. By using a modular architecture where many similar or identical elements are used, mass production methods becomes possible and economies of scale can be achieved. This approach, which we designate as Organismic Systems, is characterized by the use of many elements which are systematically interconnected in terms of structure, physical effort, and information."

The power to drive the actuators is portable, and could, for instance, take the form of a back-pack worn by soldiers who are  powered lower body exoskeletons. But there are hints in the research texts alluding to truly 'intelligent' materials. We consider it likely that the modular architecture described fits in with the general concepts of 'nano-technology'. That is, the intelligent ‘biological’ actuators have purpose-built machines within it designed at the molecular level.

This then takes on an altogether new dimension when placed in the context of proposed brain implants that can pick up neurological information directly.  This information could then readily be transferred to the ‘morphing metal’ interface that will be quite capable of adapting to the complex commands delivered by the brain.  One can imagine the development of prosthetic limbs made of these alloys that receive direct instruction from the wearer’s brain, and therefore react like real limbs.  The military applications are obviously quite incredible, and this might very well explain why $30-40m of military funding is up for grabs to develop this kind of neuro-control technology.

6. Finally, compact hybrid actuators are being developed to reduce levels of self-noise, particularly with respect to the sonar detectibility of torpedoes. Mention is also made of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (I presume this is what is meant by UUV's).  This technology seems to represent a kind of 'stealth' characteristic for underwater vehicles and weapon systems. One wonders whether a similar system has been applied to ground or air vehicles to effectively 'cloak' them on an auditory level?
Certainly, it is known that there are ‘silent’ helicopters, and ground vehicles used by special forces units that have stealth characteristics.

These current applications might lead us to suspect that the progress in this technology that has been officially released by DARPA, and the ‘actual’ state of play are two entirely separate things.  This will not be a surprise to anyone, of course, and one would expect the U.S. Military to keep their latest leaps in technology under wraps for when they are actually needed.  But this could certainly indicate that what we are presenting as ‘state-of-the-art’ in morphing metals is actually nothing of the kind.  Which then allows us to consider the ‘proposed’ future advancements with just a little scepticism.  Are we simply being ‘drip-fed’ with information about remarkable leaps in material technologies that are just around the corner?

Think about it…why are DARPA making all this information publicly available when these projects represent cutting-edge military research and development?  They didn’t do that with Stealth.  We think there is much more to come, but you can take a look and judge for yourself.  Become informed, because we think this ‘material’ will become a big part of your life sooner than you think…

Shape Memory Alloys

As incredible as it sounds, material scientists conducting research projects for the American military are successfully creating metals that can not only change shape upon the application of an energy field, but that might soon be able to autonomously ‘self-actuate’!  Are we on the verge of creating intelligent alloy materials that have their own memory and motion capabilities?  Is this scientific progress an indirect result of the now infamous exotic materials that once fell into the hands of the US Government in 1947?

The following executive report explains the state of the art ‘intelligent material’ science produced by a University of Washington-based research group for CHAP, a highly ambitious materials research project commissioned by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency:

Development of Compact Hybrid Actuators Based on Ferromagnetic Poly-crystal Fe-Pd Material

“The goal of the UW-Instron-DOE Albany project is the design of a robust compact actuator based on polycrystalline ferromagnetic shape memory alloy (FSMA) materials. " New materials will also be investigated.  A preliminary study of a proof-of-concept device has been completed and is described below:

“…The ductile nature of the polycrystalline Fe-Pd allows it to be processed into any 3-D shape, including springs, by using conventional processing methods, which would be quite cost effective.  [There is a] rapid actuation of the polycrystalline Fe-Pd spring driven by a portable magnet: the large stroke achieved with application of the magnetic field is clearly seen.  In this project, a more compact electromagnetic system housed inside the Fe-Pd spring will be developed.  In addition, new material compositions will be investigated, including Fe-Pd-Pt for a more noticeable shape memory effect and better superelasticity behavior and Fe-Ti-Co-Ni for cost.

“After improving the performance of the Fe-Pd spring actuator, a proto type will be built and demonstrated for Phase 1.  The prototype unit will consist of a Fe-Pd spring actuator (L=15cm, dia=3cm), an electromagnetic driving unit to be housed inside the spring, and a position sensor with a central unit.  This device is expected to provide up to a 10cm stroke capability with a relatively large force (150N).”

In a response to: Solicitation BAA00-03: Compact Hybrid Actuation Program (CHAP)
Prime Contractor: University of Washington
Dr. Minoru Taya, PI, Professor and Director
Center for Intelligent Materials and System
Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Washington

These Iron-Palladium alloys are clearly capable of remarkable shape-changing feats already.  The investigating team is now attempting to integrate further ‘intelligent’ components into the alloy, such that there will be no requirement for an external energy field to be applied to the metal to make it reshape.  Is this nano-technology at work?  The metal itself will incorporate an ‘electromagnetic driving unit’ and, presumably, a ‘position sensor with a central unit.’

How large is the Fe-Pd spring actuator? Just 15cm length by 3 cm diameter.  Yet this spring will become an intelligent autonomous machine with a remarkable tensile strength and stroke capability.  It will have its own ‘shape memory’.

Where have we heard of this kind of exotic material before?  Before answering this question, let us explore the nature of these remarkable new materials a little more.
The Sarcos research team describes these new forms of actuator in this way:

“These new actuators are similar in architecture to biological systems (elements arranged in parallel-series assemblies), but use very different building blocks. As in biological systems, the individual elements are optimized for best performance around one operating point…

“The small elements forming these actuation system achieve high power and energy density by using combustible fuel energy sources and efficient energy conversion via oscillatory and sometimes resonant processes. The power produced by the sources will be modulated at the individual element level rather by means of lossy components such as valves and power transistors, thereby providing power on demand with low power quiescent state. By using a modular architecture where many similar or identical elements are used, mass production methods becomes possible and economies of scale can be achieved. This approach, which we designate as Organismic Systems, is characterized by the use of many elements which are systematically interconnected in terms of structure, physical effort, and information.”

In other words, these metals are essentially machines that are built at the elemental level, and have complex internal architecture and systems in a similar way to living ones.  The nano-machines incorporated into the metal alloys utilize energy sources at the ‘individual element level’.  The metal alloy actuators are essentially autonomous.  This is very remarkable indeed, particularly given the accounts of those who have come into contact with materials alleged to be of an extra-terrestrial nature.

The Roswell Artifacts

In the latest research update by Thomas J. Carey & Don R. Schmitt regarding the Roswell case, they describe up to 9 types of exotic materials variously reported by witnesses to the events of July 1947 in New Mexico.  One of these types of metal has particular relevance here:

“An unknown quantity of very small to hand-sized pieces of a very thin and very light “metal” that displayed both solid and “fluid” qualities.  The colour of dull aluminium, a piece of it could be wadded up like a ball in one’s hand [without any sensation of weight] and, when placed on a flat surface, it unfurled [“flowed like water”] to its original flat, seamless shape without a mark on it.  Also extremely tough, it could not be cut, scratched or burned.

“Note: it is this so called ‘memory metal’ that our investigation today refers to as the ‘Holy Grail’ of Roswell since a piece of it, if found, would in our view constitute irrefutable proof that an extraterrestrial spacecraft had been recovered.”  (UFO Magazine Sept/Oct 2000 p62)

Perhaps, if the CHAP project continues to make the rapid progress that it has been in recent years, such material might not be solely the domain of extra-terrestrial visitors to our planet.  Could Compact Hybrid Actuators be the terrestrial equivalent of the Roswell artifacts?  Indeed, is it possible that the various research organisations engaged in the production of this kind of material are being surreptitiously guided towards this outcome?  Perhaps there are good reasons for believing so…

Colonel Corso

In his controversial book ‘The Day After Roswell’ Col. Philip J. Corso (Ret.), the former head of the Foreign Technology Desk at the U.S. Army’s Research and Development department, described his own experience of examining similar material alleged to come from the 1947 crash site:

“There was a dull, greyish-silvery foil-like swatch of cloth among these artifacts that you could not fold, bend, tear, or wad up but that bounded right back into its original shape without any creases.  It was a metallic fibre with physical characteristics that would later be called “supertenacity,” but when I tried to cut it with scissors, the arms just slid right off without even making a nick in the fibres.  If you tried to stretch it, it bounced back, but I noticed that all the threads seemed to be going in one direction.  When I tried to stretch it width-wise instead of length-wise, it looked like the fibres had re-orientated themselves to the direction I was pulling in.  This couldn’t be cloth, but it obviously wasn’t metal.  It was a combination, to my unscientific eye, of a cloth woven with metal strands that had the drape and malleability of a fabric and the strength and resistance of a metal.  I was on top of some of the most secret weapons projects at the Pentagon, and we had nothing like this, even under the wish-list category.”  (The Day After Roswell, p49 Pocket Books 1997)

Although this appears to be a variant on the metallic artifacts reported by Roswell witnesses, Corso’s account is no less interesting for that, particularly given his claims about what happened to this material.  In keeping with his own role as the ‘seeder’ of the Roswell technologies to the giants of American industry, the ‘supertenacious fibres’ allegedly found there way to the research departments of Monsanto and Dow (p235).  Furthermore, Corso claims that the material had previously been delivered to the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field (p236).  Wright Patterson Air Force Base, as it is now known, is famous in UFO circles for its Foreign Technology division, purported to hold extra-terrestrial craft and artifacts (See ‘Above Top Secret: The Worldwide UFO Cover-up by Timothy Good, 1988).

Department of Defense Collaborator

Given this persistent rumour about the hidden work conducted at Wright Patterson AFB, then it is certainly quite remarkable that this particular base should feature among a select band of DoD collaborators for the CHAP research:

“Several other Department of Defense (DoD) agencies conduct research related to DARPA's work in the area of Compact Hybrid Actuators. The following DoD collaborators serve as information resources to the program, promoting knowledge sharing among research teams:

1. Gary L. Anderson
US Army Research Office

3. Roshdy George S. Barsoum, PhD, PE
Office Of Naval Research

4. David B. Homan, Deputy Program Manager
Space Operations Vehicle Technology Office
Wright Patterson AFB,

5. Garnett Horner
NASA Langley Research Center”

Does the role of the ‘Space Operations Vehicle Technology Office’ at Wright Patterson AFB here specifically involve ‘seeding’ information about ‘memory metals’ to the CHAP research teams?  This must be a strong possibility.

UPDATE September 2002

It seems that the CHAP project is steaming away at full power since we first learnt of it in December, 2001. This article was posted recently on NASA's research site at

We thought you would enjoy reading the new developments, including plans for space vehicles to be able to repair themselves mid-flight. Don't say we didn't tell you so!

Dave at Cosmic Conspiracies...

Revolutions in technology--like the Industrial Revolution that replaced horses with cars--can make what seems impossible today commonplace tomorrow.

Such a revolution is happening right now. Three of the fastest-growing sciences of our day--biotech, nanotech, and information technology--are converging to give scientists unprecedented control of matter on the molecular scale. Emerging from this intellectual gold-rush is a new class of materials with astounding properties that sound more at home in a science fiction novel than on the laboratory workbench.

Imagine, for example, a substance with 100 times the strength of steel, yet only 1/6 the weight; materials that instantly heal themselves when punctured; surfaces that can "feel" the forces pressing on them; wires and electronics as tiny as molecules; structural materials that also generate and store electricity; and liquids that can instantly switch to solid and back again at will. All of these materials exist today ... and more are on the way.

With such mind-boggling materials at hand, building the better spacecraft starts to look not so far fetched after all.

Weight equals money

The challenge of the next-generation spacecraft hinges on a few primary issues. First and foremost, of course, is cost.

see caption"Even if all the technical obstacles were solved today, exploring our solar system still needs to be affordable to be practical," says Dr. Neville Marzwell, manager of Revolutionary Aerospace Technology for NASA's Next Decadal Planning Team.

Lowering the cost of space flight primarily means reducing weight. Each pound trimmed is a pound that won't need propulsion to escape from Earth's gravity. Lighter spaceships can have smaller, more efficient engines and less fuel. This, in turn, saves more weight, thus creating a beneficial spiral of weight savings and cost reduction.

Right: This fully-loaded Saturn V moon rocket weighed 6.2 million pounds. It was heavy and expensive to launch. [more]

The challenge is to trim weight while increasing safety, reliability, and functionality. Just leaving parts out won't do.

Scientists are exploring a range of new technologies that could help spacecraft slim down. For example, gossamer materials--which are ultra-thin films--might be used for antennas or photovoltaic panels in place of the bulkier components used today, or even for vast solar sails that provide propulsion while massing only 4 to 6 grams per square meter.

Composite materials, like those used in carbon-fiber tennis rackets and golf clubs, have already done much to help bring weight down in aerospace designs without compromising strength. But a new form of carbon called a "carbon nanotube" holds the promise of a dramatic improvement over composites: The best composites have 3 or 4 times the strength of steel by weight--for nanotubes, it's 600 times!

see caption"This phenomenal strength comes from the molecular structure of nanotubes," explains Dennis Bushnell, a chief scientist at Langley Research Center (LaRC), NASA's Center of Excellence for Structures and Materials. They look a bit like chicken-wire rolled into a cylinder with carbon atoms sitting at each of the hexagons' corners. Typically nanotubes are about 1.2 to 1.4 nanometers across (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter), which is only about 10 times the radius of the carbon atoms themselves.

Left:  The lattice of carbon atoms in a carbon nanotube is like a peg-board for hanging other kinds of atoms and molecules to give the nanotube special chemical, electrical or thermal properties. Copyright Prof. Vincent H. Crespi Department of Physics Pennsylvania State University. [more]

Nanotubes were only discovered in 1991, but already the intense interest in the scientific community has advanced our ability to create and use nanotubes tremendously. Only 2 to 3 years ago, the longest nanotubes that had been made were about 1000 nanometers long (1 micron). Today, scientists are able to grow tubes as long as 200 million nanometers (20 cm). Bushnell notes that there are at least 56 labs around the world working to mass produce these tiny tubes.

"Great strides are being made, so making bulk materials using nanotubes will probably happen," Bushnell says. "What we don't know is how much of this 600 times the strength of steel by weight will be manifest in a bulk material. Still, nanotubes are our best bet."

see captionRight:  The tensile strength of carbon nanotubes greatly exceeds that of other high-strength materials. Note that each increment on the vertical axis is a power of 10. [more]

Beyond merely being strong, nanotubes will likely be important for another part of the spacecraft weight-loss plan: materials that can serve more than just one function.

"We used to build structures that were just dumb, dead-weight holders for active parts, such as sensors, processors, and instruments," Marzwell explains. "Now we don't need that. The holder can be an integral, active part of the system."

Imagine that the body of a spacecraft could also store power, removing the need for heavy batteries. Or that surfaces could bend themselves, doing away with separate actuators. Or that circuitry could be embedded directly into the body of the spacecraft. When materials can be designed on the molecular scale such holistic structures become possible.

Spacecraft skins

Humans can feel even the slightest pinprick anywhere on their bodies. It's an amazing bit of self-monitoring--possible because your skin contains millions of microscopic nerve endings as well as nerves to carry those signals to your brain.

Likewise, materials that make up critical systems in a spaceship could be embedded with nanometer-scale sensors that constantly monitor the materials' condition. If some part is starting to fail--that is, it "feels bad"--these sensors could alert the central computer before tragedy strikes.

see captionMolecular wires could carry the signals from all of these in-woven sensors to the central computer, avoiding the impractical bulk of millions and millions of today's wires. Again, nanotubes may be able to serve this role. Conveniently, nanotubes can act as either conductors or semi-conductors, depending on how they're made. Scientists have made molecular wires of other elongated molecules, some of which even naturally self-assemble into useful configurations.

Above:  This piezoelectric material, developed at NASA's Langley Research Center (LaRC), can "feel" deformations such as bending or surface pressure, producing a small voltage in response that can act as a signal for a central computer. Image courtesy NASA's Morphing Project at LaRC.

Your skin is also able to heal itself. Believe it or not, some advanced materials can do the same thing. Self-healing materials made of long-chain molecules called ionomers react to a penetrating object such as a bullet by closing behind it. Spaceships could use such skins because space is full of tiny projectiles--fast-moving bits of debris from comets and asteroids. Should one of these sand- to pebble-sized objects puncture the ship's armor, a layer of self-healing material would keep the cabin airtight.

Meteoroids aren't the only hazard; space is filled with radiation, too. Spaceships in low-Earth orbit are substantially protected by our planet's magnetic field, which forms a safe bubble about 50,000 km wide centered on Earth. Beyond that distance, however, solar flares and cosmic rays pose a threat to space travelers.

see captionRight: A solar flare blasts energetic radiation into space. [more]

Scientists are still searching for a good solution. The trick is to provide adequate shielding without adding lots of extra weight to the spacecraft. Some lightweight radiation-shielding materials are currently being tested in an experiment called MISSE onboard the International Space Station. But these alone won't be enough.

The real bad guy is Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR) produced in distant supernova explosions. It consists, in part, of very heavy positive ions--such as iron nuclei--zipping along at great speed. The combination of high mass and high speed makes these little atomic "cannon balls" very destructive. When they pierce through the cells in people's bodies, they can smash apart DNA, leading to illness and even cancer.

"It turns out that the worst materials you can use for shielding against GCR are metals," Bushnell notes. When a galactic comic ray hits a metallic atom, it can shatter the atom's nucleus--a process akin to the fission that occurs in nuclear power plants. The secondary radiation produced by these collisions can be worse than the GCR that the metal was meant to shield.

Ironically, light elements like hydrogen and helium are the best defense against these GCR brutes, because collisions with them produce little secondary radiation. Some people have suggested surrounding the living quarters of the ship with a tank of liquid hydrogen. According to Bushnell, a layer of liquid hydrogen 50 to 100 cm thick would provide adequate shielding. But the tank and the cryogenic system is likely to be heavy and awkward.

see captionHere again, nanotubes might be useful. A lattice of carbon nanotubes can store hydrogen at high densities, and without the need for extreme cold. So if our spacecraft of the future already uses nanotubes as an ultra-lightweight structural material, could those tubes also be loaded up with hydrogen to serve as radiation shielding? Scientists are looking into the possibility.

Above:  When high-energy cosmic rays crash into astronauts' DNA, it can cause damage leading to cancers or other radiation-induced illnesses. Images courtesy NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research.

Going one step further, layers of this structural material could be laced with atoms of other elements that are good at filtering out other forms of radiation: boron and lithium to handle the neutrons, and aluminum to sop up electrons, for example.

Camping out in the cosmos

Earth's surface is mostly safe from cosmic radiation, but other planets are not so lucky. Mars, for example, doesn't have a strong global magnetic field to deflect radiation particles, and its atmospheric blanket is 140 times thinner than Earth's. These two differences make the radiation dose on the Martian surface about one-third as intense as in unprotected open space. Future Mars explorers will need radiation shielding.

see caption"We can't take most of the materials with us for a long-term shelter because of the weight consideration. So one thing we're working on is how to make radiation-shielding materials from the elements that we find there," says Sheila Thibeault, a scientist at LaRC who specializes in radiation shielding.

Right:  Astronauts setting up camp on Mars will need protection from space radiation. Image credit: Frassanito and Associates, Inc.

One possible solution is "Mars bricks." Thibeault explains: "Astronauts could produce radiation-resistant bricks from materials available locally on Mars, and use them to build shelters." They might, for example, combine the sand-like "regolith" that covers the Martian surface with a polymer made on-site from carbon dioxide and water, both abundant on the red planet. Zapping this mixture with microwaves creates plastic-looking bricks that double as good radiation shielding.

"By using microwaves, we can make these bricks quickly using very little energy or equipment," she explains. "And the polymer we would use adds to the radiation-shielding properties of the regolith."

Mars shelters would need the reliability of self-sensing materials, the durability of self-healing materials, and the weight savings of multi-functional materials. In other words, a house on Mars and a good spacecraft need many of the same things. All of these are being considered by researchers, Thibeault says.

The folks back home

Mind-boggling advanced materials will come in handy on Earth, too.

"NASA's research is certainly focused on aerospace vehicles," notes Anna McGowan, manager of NASA's Morphing Project (an advanced materials research effort at the Langley Research Center). "However, the basic science could be used in many other areas. There could be millions of spin-offs."

'BigDog' Robot Joins U.S. Military

It appears that DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been busy since we last wrote about their research into morphing metals.  Their latest invention is called 'BigDog', which is a quadruped robot that walks, runs, and climbs on rough terrain and carries heavy loads. BigDog is powered by a gasoline engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system. It's legs are articulated like an animal’s, and have compliant elements that absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule, measuring 1 meter long, 0.7 meters tall and 75 kg in weight.

BigDog is being developed by Boston Dynamics with the goal of creating robots that have rough-terrain mobility that can take them anywhere on Earth that people and animals can go. 

Marc Raibert, the president of Boston Dynamics, said: "Internal force sensors detect the ground variations and compensate for them. And BigDog's active balance allows it to maintain stability when we disturb it."

Current models of BigDog are remote-controlled from army bases by commanders. However it is thought that future versions will be built with eye-like sensors that allow it to become "unleashed" by making intelligent decisions about a journey. The program is funded by DARPA.



For More Information

We were originally going to keep DARPA's identity secret for a while for two reasons. The first reason was to keep this story exclusive, and two, to stop other sites from simply going to DARPA and beating us in releasing this interesting story that we have spent investigating over the last 6 weeks. However,  due to the wealth of information on the DARPA site, and the lack of space on Cosmic Conspiracies server, we simply cannot bring as much of the material that we would like to and therefore we have decided to release the name of the main organisation involved so that you could all check out the DARPA site for yourselves.

 The URL is

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Andy Lloyd, Dave and Martin Cosnette
9th December 2001. Updated 10th February 2009