A New Orleans-area firm’s ‘radiation shield’ could save astronaut lives

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This article was originally published on NOLA.com.

A New Orleans-area company has spent years developing a new, high-tech coating to protect astronauts and equipment from harmful radiation in space. Now, the technology is headed to the International Space Station for testing.

The technology, developed by Geocent, a Metairie-based information technology and engineering firm, could one day coat lunar habitats, creating a safe environment for astronauts to live on the moon. The tests, which will be overseen by NASA, will also explore how the coating could help keep astronauts alive and equipment functioning in deep space travel to Mars and beyond.

In addition to the radiation coating, NASA will test a separate thermal barrier coating also developed by Geocent and its partners. That coating could one day protect parts of NASA’s latest multibillion-dollar rocket from extreme heat.

“It’s really some extraordinary technology that we feel is a major breakthrough,” Bobby Savoie, Geocent’s chairman and CEO, said Tuesday (June 18) over the phone. “Our tests on the International Space Station will tell us whether we’re correct or not.”

New Orleans has a long history of building space vehicles and creating the technology that makes them work. For decades, NASA has built its rockets and crew modules at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East. Michoud’s latest project is the Space Launch System, NASA’s new mega-rocket designed to take humans beyond Earth’s orbit and into deep space. Officials aim to land astronauts on the moon in 2024.

Geocent, a subcontractor under Boeing and the lead manufacturer on the SLS program, has been heavily involved in the 322-foot rocket’s design, including assisting in designing its thrust factor control (the technology that makes sure the rocket is going in the right direction), stress testing and analysis, and 3-D modeling to make sure all of the rocket parts are built to precise specifications, Savoie said.

The radiation and thermal barrier coatings headed to the International Space Station are the result of separate, dedicated NASA grants the company received to explore better, more efficient options for protecting people and equipment in space. Geocent developed the radiation coating in partnership with manufacturer Plasma Processes Inc. as well as experts at the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

The radiation coating, an ultra-lightweight material applied to surfaces like a paint, is designed to go on spacecraft or habitats, protecting astronauts and critical avionics from what are known as Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs) and secondary particles. The coating could be applied on the exterior of a structure or layered inside of it, one of the aspects that will be tested at the Space Station, Savoie said. The goal is to save lives, he added.

Without protection, “a trip to Mars and back will expose astronauts to a lethal dose of radiation,” Savoie said.

The thermal barrier coating is applied directly to rocket components to protect them from extreme heat, including structures like nozzles and leading edges.

In a news release, Dr. Subhayu Sen, principal investigator for Geocent, said the company is “extremely grateful to NASA” for the opportunity to test the coatings in space. Sen noted the tests will show how well the materials hold up over time in space in addition to how effective they are at blocking deadly elements in space like atomic oxygen and ultraviolet radiation.

The first batch of radiation and thermal barrier coating launched to the International Space Station in mid-April, where they were mounted to the exterior of the orbiting station for testing. A second round of samples will be sent up in December.

Savoie noted many New Orleanians have no idea this kind of work is being done in their backyard. He added the opportunity for young people who are interested in working on space flight is growing.

He said Geocent primarily hires engineers from a range of specialities, including chemical, nuclear, mechanical and aerospace engineering. Physicists are also in demand, he said.

“My job is to hire smart people and get out of the way,” Savoie joked.

He noted the market is also growing for the type of advanced manufacturing know-how needed to build space vehicles, including stir-friction welding and electrical work. Louisiana’s community colleges offer two-year degrees in those areas, he said.

“We’re entering a new era of space exploration that is very exciting and very challenging,” Savoie said. “We’re going to need people who can dream and make those dreams come true.”

This post is written by Geocent