New Material, Darker Than Black, Could Help Space Cameras See Better

Super-dark coatings help calibrate sensitive cameras and absorb unwanted light.
Evangelos Theocharous et al., Optics Express, 2014

The latest super-dark material absorbs so much light, you can’t tell when it’s been crumpled or folded.

“You expect to see the hills and all you can see … it’s like black, like a hole, like there’s nothing there. It just looks so strange,” Ben Jensen, chief technical officer of Surrey Nanosystems, told the Independent. Surrey NanoSystems researchers worked with the U.K.’s National Physics Laboratory and a U.K.-based company, ABSL Space Products, to make this new material, called Vantablack. The name hints at the material’s microstructure, which makes use of a VANTA (vertically aligned carbon nanotube array). Vantablack absorbs 99.965 percent of the visible light that hits it. The previous record-holder for the world’s darkest material absorbed a mere 99.960 percent of the visible light it encountered, the Guardian reports.

Vantablack’s ability to absorb visible light is just the tip of the iceberg. It also absorbs other types of radiation, including more than 99.85 percent of the infrared radiation it encounters, according to Surrey Nanosystems. Its makers have tested it to see if it’s durable enough to head into space with satellite missions, where it could help calibrate super-sensitive infrared cameras. This is a common job description for super-black materials. Research groups, including NASA, have long worked to make blacker blacks to absorb unwanted light before it reaches imaging equipment used in space.

Scientists make Vantablack by depositing carbon nanotubes close together on a thin sheet of aluminum. The tiny spaces between the tubes trap light, preventing it from reflecting off the material. A number of research groups have made super-absorbing black materials with similar microstructures. One advantage of Vantablack is that it doesn’t require as high of temperatures to make as other carbon nanotube materials, according to Surrey NanoSystems. That means engineers can deposit Vantablack coatings on a wider range of materials.