Debbie Senesky, an Associate Professor at Stanford University in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, believes Venus is not Earth’s sister planet but rather its malevolent twin. Venus’s environment is nothing short of hellish, with surface temperatures soaring to a blistering 480 degrees Celsius, surface pressures a staggering 90 times that of Earth, and an unpleasant scent of rotten eggs, all due to the presence of sulfur compounds.
Senesky raises a compelling question: Could studying Venus’s evolution shed light on Earth’s environmental history and aid in averting a similar fate via climate change? Billions of years ago, Venus might have resembled Earth. Understanding this transformation could offer valuable insights into preserving Earth’s habitability.
In the Extreme Environment Microsystems Laboratory, also known as the X Lab at Stanford University, Senesky’s research revolves around resilient electronics and materials for space exploration. To adapt electronics for the harsh Venusian environment, her team employs wide bandgap semiconductor materials—ceramic materials capable of withstanding high temperatures while reliably conducting electrons. These materials are pivotal for sensors and communication devices in the hostile Venus atmosphere.
Creating electronics from wide bandgap semiconductors presents its challenges. Defect-free material growth and comprehension of their performance in high-temperature and chemically corrosive conditions remain ongoing challenges.
An innovative endeavor involves leveraging space’s unique environment to synthesize novel materials. Senesky’s team capitalizes on the distinctive chemistry that occurs in microgravity, where materials can acquire previously unattainable properties. Microgravity eliminates effects like sedimentation, which affect processes on Earth, making space an ideal environment for materials innovation.
Two decades ago, during microgravity material growth experiments on the space shuttle, researchers discovered that materials produced exhibited superior quality with fewer defects and faster growth rates. Consequently, manufacturing materials in space could lead to enhanced products produced both faster and with greater precision.
Senesky’s team aims to conduct experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) to synthesize graphene aerogels—lightweight, highly porous, electrically conductive, and thermally insulating materials. These aerogels serve various purposes, from heat shields to battery electrodes and sensor components. Manufacturing them in a microgravity environment ensures they possess more uniform properties.
The prospect of space manufacturing is no longer science fiction. Commercial Low-Earth orbit Destinations (CLDs) are emerging, resembling the International Space Station but created by the commercial industry. These CLDs offer exciting prospects for manufacturing materials and products with applications both on Earth and in space missions.
This marks the dawn of a new space economy and an uncharted frontier in reimagining the possibilities of life 50 years from now. Senesky and her peers are at the forefront of understanding our cosmic neighbors, extracting vital lessons from Venus and enhancing our capacity to explore the cosmos.
By Impact Lab