Sunday, January 1, 2012

Of space travel and ancient pottery

I'm amazed to learn that the pottery of ancient Greece may help to improve the safety of space travel. The Israel Herald reports:

The study of the chemical and physical properties of ancient Attic pottery would help improve space missions, believe scientists.

Considering it importance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded nearly 500,000 dollars to scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute, Stanford's National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) and the Aerospace Corporation earlier this year to study the secrets of Attic pottery.

Among other objectives, it is hoped that the project will improve our understanding of iron-spinel chemistry, which is critical to the advanced ceramics used for thermal protection in aerospace applications, such as protective tiles on the Mars Rover Sojourner, or the fleet of space shuttles, for example.

Attic pottery features red and black figures and was a fixture in ancient Greece from the sixth to fourth centuries B.C.

Red-figure Attic pottery, circa 530 BC (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The iron-spinel ceramic pigments found in Attic pottery are able to remain chemically stable at very high temperatures.

It's the degree of iron oxidation that provides the red and black coloring associating with Attic pottery.

There's more at the link.

I know that spinels are "resistant to chemical weathering and abrasion", but who came up with the idea that the use of iron-spinel compounds as a glaze in ancient pottery might be useful to or relevant for modern space technology? It blows my mind to think that the hand-made pottery of ancient Greece, well over two millennia old - long before anyone had even flown, never mind gone beyond our atmosphere into space! - might help to produce better heat-shield tiles to protect spacecraft against re-entry into atmosphere.

Space Shuttle thermal protection system ceramic tile (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I'd never have made the connection. I wonder what inspired the National Science Foundation to do so? Some modern scientist must have had a brainwave . . .



Old NFO said...

One never knows what paths science will take these days... When we use algae to eat oil, who knows!

BCFD36 said...

Of course, some of the Republican Party would like to do away with or at least cripple the NSF (Joe Walsh, R-Il, Rand Paul. You can never tell what research will lead to something really exciting. Something that sounds really silly may lead to something amazing. The examples (do your own research) are almost limitless.

acairfearann said...

That is what 'interdisciplinary' and 'liberal arts' ought to mean...

Anonymous said...

Ok everybody! Listen up! The so-called ceramic tiles found on the outside of the Space Shuttle was actually "foam glass". Denser for "heat load bearing areas", less dense for non-load bearing areas. This was an exceptionally light weight material (foam glass), if it were a true ceramic like a plate, the space shuttle never would have gotten off the launch pad.---Michael

AM said...

Actually it isn't a stretch at all to go from looking at pigments that are stable in the heat of a ceramic kiln for application protecting craft from the heat of re-entry.