Space science applications for conducting polymer particles: synthetic mimics for cosmic dust and micrometeorites
Over the last decade or so, a range of polypyrrole-based particles have been designed and evaluated for space science applications. This electrically conductive polymer enables such particles to efficiently acquire surface charge, which in turn allows their acceleration up to the hypervelocity regime (>1 km s−1) using a Van de Graaff accelerator. Either organic latex (e.g. polystyrene or poly(methyl methacrylate)) or various inorganic materials (such as silica, olivine or pyrrhotite) can be coated with polypyrrole; these core–shell particles are useful mimics for understanding the hypervelocity impact ionisation behaviour of micro-meteorites (a.k.a. cosmic dust). Impacts on metal targets at relatively low hypervelocities (<10 km s−1) generate ionic plasma composed mainly of molecular fragments, whereas higher hypervelocities (>10 km s−1) generate predominately atomic species, since many more chemical bonds are cleaved if the particles impinge with higher kinetic energy. Such fundamental studies are relevant to the calibration of the cosmic dust analyser (CDA) onboard the Cassini spacecraft, which was designed to determine the chemical composition of Saturn's dust rings. Inspired by volcanism observed for one of the Jupiter's moons (Io), polypyrrole-coated sulfur-rich latexes have also been designed to help space scientists understand ionisation spectra originating from sulfur-rich dust particles. Finally, relatively large (20 μm diameter) polypyrrole-coated polystyrene latexes have proven to be useful for understanding the extent of thermal ablation of organic projectiles when fired at ultralow density aerogel targets at up to 6.1 km s−1 using a Light Gas Gun. In this case, the sacrificial polypyrrole overlayer simply provides a sensitive spectroscopic signature (rather than a conductive overlayer), and the scientific findings have important implications for the detection of organic dust grains during the Stardust space mission.