Super-resilient ceramic could be the key to future spacecraft

It can withstand blistering temperatures above 5,400F.

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Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov
Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

Vehicles like the Space Shuttle have used ceramic tiles to thwart heat during reentry, but it has its limits. It can only get so hot, which can force you to use different materials -- and you can forget about using near an engine. Russia's Tomsk State University wants to change that. It's developing a ceramic whose multiple layers (based on hafnium carbide, zirconium diboride and zirconium oxide) can survive temperatures over 5,400F (3,000C). Even the best metal alloys can't usually handle more than 3,600F (2,000C), the university says.

That kind of durability would be most crucial on the outside of spacecraft, offering better protection across the board. However, it could also be vital inside engines -- designers could push the limits of jets and rockets, putting out that much more power without the risk of a breakdown. The material should help shield temperature sensors, too. Researchers want to stress-test the ceramic before they declare it ready (including a long-duration 4,000F test with Roscosmos), but it already has a promising future.

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