Carbon nanotubes may offer the possibility of detecting harmful ionizing radiation during interplanetary space missions. Radiation damages DNA in living cells, leading to health problems such as nausea, cataracts, and cancer.
Radiation hazards in space travel come in the form of trapped radiation, galactic cosmic rays, and solar particle events. To detect and monitor the radiation, NASA is developing a carbon nanotube dosimeter. A dosimeter is any device used to measure an individual's dose to a hazardous environment. The carbon nanotube dosimeter would detect and measure the radiation by monitoring changes in the conductivity of a nanotube sensor. Studies have shown that nanotube conductivity levels in the dosimeter increase with radiation and then decrease after that. An increase in radiation doses in a spacecraft would warn the astronauts to take action.
NASA is also planning a space elevator that would be attached to a cable that would orbit Earth at a height of 36,000 kilometers. Scientists believe that the cable could be made from carbon nanotubes that are 100 times stronger than steel. See Chapter 8 for more information about NASA's plans for the space elevator.
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