In the Pitch Black of space, only Oobleck can save you

Remember at the beginning? Fry’s captain bites it because of micrometeors… Probably for the best, Riddick would have probably killed him anyway.

As a fan of science fiction and a wanna-be futurist, I like to think that someday in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future we will send out a spaceship designed to slowly carry colonists across the vast, empty stretches of interstellar space to a new world. This trip will likely take years, maybe a hundred years or more. This kind of ship is called a generation ship.

Of course, if technology advances even faster, then we’ll skip to interstellar slog and sprint instead. Either way, there are several fundamental pieces of technology that we’ll need to ensure our survival. Recently, I covered the dangers of cosmic radiation, those atomic-scale particles traveling at near-light speed that can destroy DNA and kill excruciatingly slowly.

This time I want to cover some larger and slightly-slower moving objects: evil random space bullets, otherwise known as micrometeors. Think back to the opening scene of Pitch Black, starring Vin Diesel and Radha Mitchell about a motley mix of people stranded on a desert world.

Choose Your Own Commentary Interjection:

  1. Yes, fantastic movie, I remember every line and scream! I still wake at night screaming for Shazza to stay down.
    Awesome, glad we’re on the same page. Best you rewatch it just to be sure.
  2. No, not that dumb Chronicles of Muscled-Villain-Turned-Antihero movie?
    No. Just, no. That was the sequel which wasn’t as bad as everyone says, but still not as good as the original. Shut up and go rewatch Pitch Black.
  3. Never heard of it.
    What? I don’t see how that’s possible. Go watch it. No, not later, now. We’ll wait. Seriously, go watch the damn movie!

Anyway, as you’ll recall, the ship is cruising along through space, minding its own business, when it’s hit by a micrometeor storm, one of which promptly thumps a glowing hole in the center of the ship’s captain. One of the things I liked about this scene is the raw, imperfect nature in which these people are traveling through space. They have no “shields” or anything, and traveling from planet to planet takes enough time that they go into a sort of hibernation mode. But, for our purposes, the micrometeors are the focus here.

Micrometeors are tiny bits of rock and space dust that are moving REALLY fast. Or, if your ship is moving really fast, they could just as well be sitting still. In space, there is no difference. The problem arises when these normally harmless bits of ice and rock punch through a spaceship at not-insignificant speeds. These deep space shrapnel can shred a ship, leaving gaping or tiny holes in the hull. And what do holes in ships do? They let all the air out. Air is good, no air is bad.

However, we may be one step closer to having a ballistic armor for ships that could protect against this kind of threat. Business Insider recently had an article (which I found through a friend’s site on a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet who is responsible for creating a new kind of armor. Of course, Cadet Hayley Weir was probably not intending to create something for spaceships. Rather, she was looking for a stronger, lighter material to protect troops in combat from bullets. What she ended up creating, though, might just be much bigger than she ever expected.

Weir’s idea was to use a non-Newtonian-like fluid layered with Kevlar. For those not familiar with non-Newtonian fluids, also called Ooblecks, a simple example is mixing a lot of corn starch with a little bit of water. It becomes a paste-like fluid that reacts strangely to kinetic energy. If you push slowly, the fluid moves easily, but hard, fast impacts are resisted or stopped. The harder the impact, the stronger the resistance.

It took Weir and her research partner Ryan Burke about a year, but in December 2016, they successfully stopped a 9mm bullet. The interesting thing they found, though, was that the larger the bullet, the faster it was stopped.

Until recently, scientists were even sure what made the odd liquid work, but Itai Cohen, an associate professor of physics at Cornell University, created an experiment to determine if it was a matter of the fluid dynamics between the material particles or if it was molecular friction. Cohen’s experiment showed that an oobleck’s viscosity increases as more force is applied because of the frictional force within the fluid’s structure. You can check out a video with his much-better explanation here.

So if we take this a step into the future… Think of a spaceship’s hull as multiple layers. The outer layer acts as just the shell. But behind that, we would have an inner armored shell that was made of a carbon-fiber honeycomb structure, with the pockets filled with a cold-resistant oobleck fluid.

In this situation, the outer shell provides the ship’s appearance and some basic protection against low-grade ballistic objects. Should one of those objects puncture the outer hull though, a more resilient layer resides underneath, letting the ship keep its pressured interior intact. Go one step further, and what if that oobleck is not as cold resistant. What if it actually reacts to the cold vacuum of space, hardening into a protective shell? This would make it so that if a micrometeor (or bullet) did rupture the hull, the oobleck would fill the gap and harden instantly, kind of like a bicycle tire with that green ride-flat goop inside.

Space is a dangerous place, and we’ll need all the help we can get to keep from dying cold, airless deaths out there. And while we may get humans beyond our solar system within my lifetime, I totally believe we’ll get there someday.

Maybe if Merchant Vessel Hunter Gratzner had had an ooblecky double-layer hull, Shazza would still be in one piece. Did you think of that Hunter Gratzner Industries engineers? No. No, you didn’t. Because you’re selfish, that’s why.

Well, that and because you’re not real.



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