NASA Uses Gold On Its Spacecraft

With all the talk about how hard it is to get funding for missions into outer space, this might sound crazy: NASA covers many of its spacecraft in real gold. Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll realize it's not so crazy after all.

The gold of the solar arrays, illuminated from behind by the sunrise, provides stark contrast to the blackness of space in this scene, photographed at the completion of the servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

Space Bling

One of the biggest threats to the delicate electronics on a spacecraft is radiation. With no atmosphere to protect them from that radiation, electronics get a direct hit, transferring heat and risking serious damage. Gold is very, very good at reflecting radiation. It reflects as much infrared and UV radiation as copper, aluminum, and silver, but it does them one better by absorbing a large amount of visible light. This means it won't blind astronauts with massive reflections. And anyone who's owned jewelry knows that silver and copper tarnish easily. Gold stays shiny, which means less maintenance both for jewelry wearers and for NASA engineers. 

Not All That Glitters

According to NOAA, however, not everything that looks like gold on space objects is actually gold. Multi-layer insulation (MLI) looks like foil with a yellowish-gold metallic hue, but is actually made from layers of polyimide or polyester coated with thin layers of aluminum. The silver side faces in, while the yellow polyimide faces out, giving satellites and other objects their bling-tastic appearance. Still, even those satellites can have gold components, since gold is just so darn good at protecting things in the vacuum of space. 

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Written by Curiosity Staff September 30, 2016

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