NASA Concedes RPI’s Darkest Dark is Darker

by Michael Mullaney on December 2, 2010

(Photo credit: NASA)

You know things are going well when NASA concedes that you beat them to the chase.

I ran across a news story, posted today, about a team of NASA engineers who are developing a nanoengineered film to help boost the effectiveness of space-based observation and data collection devices. The thin film, NASA says, is made from multi-walled carbon nanotubes and kind of resembles a “shag rug.” Light gets trapped in the “forest” of nanotubes, never to escape. The benefit in this application is catching stray light so it doesn’t interfere with the target light that NASA is trying to measure.

Is this all starting to sound a little familiar? It sure was for me, and then a few paragraphs later in the story I was tickled to see this:

Hagopian’s team began working on the technology in 2007 in part with Goddard R&D funds. Unbeknownst to the group, the New York-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute also had initiated a similar effort and announced in 2008 that its researchers had developed the darkest carbon nanotube-based material ever made — more than three times darker than the previous record.

“Our material isn’t quite as dark as theirs,” Hagopian said. “But what we’re developing is 10 times blacker than current NASA paints that exponentially suppress system stray light. It also will be robust for space applications.”

Well how do you like that?

The Rensselaer research mentioned by NASA is led by none other than physics professor extraordinaire Shawn Lin. We’ve written about it here at The Approach. And back when the Lin’s “darkest material known to man” was first announced, it caught the attention of media outlets around the world. The story even landed on the front page of the Washington Post – which called the material “a Roach Motel for photons— light checks in, but it never checks out.” As if that wasn’t cool enough, Lin and team secured an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for “darkest manmade substance.”

It’s not every day you get a shout-out from NASA for out-engineering them. Even though Lin’s antireflective coating is still very fragile and likely wouldn’t be fit for deployment in space, his darkest dark is still the darkest of them all. (And, hopefully one day soon, it will be used to make significant improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of solar power.)

Some grist for the mill: