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MIT studies Micro-Impacts at 100 million frames per second

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Engineers know that small superfast objects can cause spacecraft damage, but it has been difficult to understand exactly how the damage occurs, because the moment is very brief. A new study by MIT aims to reveal the processes at work that produce microscopic crates and holes in material. The hope is that by understanding how the effects work, we may have more sustainable materials.

Unintentional space impact is not the only place these mechanisms are recording. There are also industrial applications on the ground like applying coatings, strengthening metal surfaces and cutting materials. A better understanding of micro-effects can also make these processes more effective. However, observing such effects was not easy.

For the experiments, the MIT layer used 10 micrometer diameter particles accelerated to 1 kilometer per second. They used a laser system to launch the projectile that immediately evaporates a surface material and sprays the particles and ensures consistent timing. It is important because the high-speed camera pointed to the test surface (even tin) needed specific light conditions. At the appointed time, a second laser highlighted the particle so that the camera followed the effect up to 100 million frames per second.

In previous studies of microconsequences, researchers have to rely entirely on post mortem analysis of the effects injuries. Look at it in real time and compare it with the final product revealing several important factors. At speeds above a certain threshold, the team discovered a swing period that melts when the particle hits the surface. It plays a crucial role in eroding the material.

Setting momentum as a 10 micrometer particle affects a metal surface. Credit: MIT

Using data with high speed camera, the team developed a model that can predict how a particle will interact with the surface. It can bounce off, hold or loosen material and leave a crater that weakens the surface. This is important, especially in industrial applications, because the conventional wisdom has long been that higher speeds are more efficient. We now know that is not always the case.

Research has so far focused on pure metals, but most industrial and space applications depend on alloys. Expanding the test to more material is next on the agenda. Similarly, researchers plan to fire particles on surfaces from different angles – these initial tests were only straightforward effects.

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