Hurtling through the endless void of space in a thin aluminum can as debris zips around in every direction may have just gotten a little safer. NASA and the University of Michigan have designed a new “skin” that can heal itself within seconds of being punctured.
In a study published in the American Chemical Society’s Macro Letters in July, a research team showed it had found a way to make a material that can quickly heal itself. According to New Scientist, the material is made up of three layers—two thin polymer walls with a liquid inside—which, when exposed to oxygen, will harden.
This means when either of the walls are punctured, the liquid will quickly fill up the gap. In a video released by the research team, the material can be seen actually fixing a hole made by a bullet in about a second.
As 2013’s comedy-of-errors film Gravity showed, even the smallest space rocks speeding around at thousands of miles an hour can have dire effects when they come into contact with a spaceship. NASA’s new material could act as a plug when something hits a spaceship, giving astronauts time to get to the puncture and repair it properly, instead of sucking the air out of their ship.
The material won’t replace any ships’ exterior walls, but could act as a stopgap safety mechanism that’s built into a wall. “The intent is really to plug [the hole] very quickly,” the paper’s co-author Timothy Scott, from the University of Michigan, told IFLScience.
In the research video, the team showed a material that was a single millimeter thick, but it could be produced just tens of microns wide—the width of a few human red blood cells. This could potentially allow it to have a wide range of applications on Earth as well. It could one day make for safer airplane hulls, fuel tanks, or even creepy future robot skins that can heal themselves, Terminator-style.
There are other self-healing materials that can plug holes in a similar way, as New Scientist points out, but they work far more slowly. A team in Japan is also working on a self-healing material made of genetically-engineered squid teeth that can heal itself with warm water, though that’s not quite as abundant in space.