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NASA's own super-black coating ventures into space

Vantablack may be the darkest material in the world, but NASA aims to have the darkest material out of this world when it tests a nano-coating on the space station.

Super-black coating
The super-black material is on the far right. NASA/Bill Squicciarini

The announcement of Vantablack made quite a splash recently since its creators called it the "world's darkest material." It may hold the terrestrial crown, but NASA has sent its own super-black nano-coating up to the International Space Station for testing.

Like Vantablack, NASA's super-black coating is composed of carbon nanotubes, designed to improve optical instruments by making them more sensitive without needing to make them any bigger than they already are. The coating is 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair. Its ability to absorb stray light far outperforms the black paint that is typically used on instruments.

The coating has been in development for six years, with the project being led by NASA Principal Investigator John Hagopian, an optics engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The material has been put through the paces in laboratories, but it's now ready for its space debut. "The objective is to determine how well this coating survives the harsh space environment," says Hagopian.

Two test trays of the material arrived at the space station on August 12. It will be exposed to space for a year before being sent back to Earth for evaluation.

Hagopian is fine with his coating not being the blackest in existence. He's more concerned about the material surviving the rigors of space, which includes exposure to harsh radiation. "We are focusing on making our coatings robust and not necessarily the blackest for now," he says.

If the material makes it through its first space voyage, it could then get a trial in an actual space instrument, perhaps hitching a ride on a CubeSat, a type of tiny satellite. Ultimately, the research could result in more accurate optical instruments, letting researchers peer farther out into the universe to discover new astronomical objects.

NASA task board
The material is attached on the far left of this task board. NASA Goddard/Chris Gunn