Current designs for inflatable or semirigidized structures for habitats and space applications use a multiple-layer construction, alternating thin layers with thicker, stronger layers, which produces a layered composite structure that is much better at resisting damage. Even though such composite structures or layered systems are robust, they can still be susceptible to penetration damage.

The ability to detect damage to surfaces of inflatable or semi-rigid habitat structures is of great interest to NASA. Damage caused by impacts of foreign objects such as micrometeorites can rupture the shell of these structures, causing loss of critical hardware and/or the life of the crew. While not all impacts will have a catastrophic result, it will be very important to identify and locate areas of the exterior shell that have been damaged by impacts so that repairs (or other provisions) can be made to reduce the probability of shell wall rupture. This disclosure describes a system that will provide realtime data regarding the health of the inflatable shell or rigidized structures, and information related to the location and depth of impact damage.

The innovation described here is a method of determining the size, location, and direction of damage in a multi-layered structure. In the multi-dimensional damage detection system, layers of two-dimensional thin film detection layers are used to form a layered composite, with non-detection layers separating the detection layers. The non-detection layers may be either thicker or thinner than the detection layers. The thin-film damage detection layers are thin films of materials with a conductive grid or striped pattern. The conductive pattern may be applied by several methods, including printing, plating, sputtering, photolithography, and etching, and can include as many detection layers that are necessary for the structure construction or to afford the detection detail level required. The damage is detected using a detector or sensory system, which may include a time domain reflectometer, resistivity monitoring hardware, or other resistance-based systems.

To begin, a layered composite consisting of thin-film damage detection layers separated by non-damage detection layers is fabricated. The damage detection layers are attached to a detector that provides details regarding the physical health of each detection layer individually. If damage occurs to any of the detection layers, a change in the electrical properties of the detection layers damaged occurs, and a response is generated. Real-time analysis of these responses will provide details regarding the depth, location, and size estimation of the damage. Multiple damages can be detected, and the extent (depth) of the damage can be used to generate prognostic information related to the expected lifetime of the layered composite system.

The detection system can be fabricated very easily using off-the- shelf equipment, and the detection algorithms can be written and updated (as needed) to provide the level of detail needed based on the system being monitored. Connecting to the thin film detection layers is very easy as well. The truly unique feature of the system is its flexibility; the system can be designed to gather as much (or as little) information as the end user feels necessary. Individual detection layers can be turned on or off as necessary, and algorithms can be used to optimize performance. The system can be used to generate both diagnostic and prognostic information related to the health of layer composite structures, which will be essential if such systems are utilized for space exploration. The technology is also applicable to other in-situ health monitoring systems for structure integrity.

This work was done by Martha Williams, Mark Lewis, and Luke Roberson of Kennedy Space Center; and Pedro Medelius, Tracy Gibson, Steven Parks, and Sarah Snyder of ASRC Aerospace Corporation. For further information, contact the KSC Technology Transfer Office at (321) 867-5033. KSC-13588

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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