Superinsulating aerogels are more than 85 percent air by volume, earning them the nickname “solid smoke.” Yet existing silica aerogels are brittle, like cheap Styrofoam. A much tougher alternative comes from the NASA Glenn Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, both in Cleveland, where scientists have invented new polymer-based versions some 500 times stronger. These aerogels, composed of heat-resistant polyimide plastics, are flexible enough to be folded in half. NASA engineers hope to use them as space suit insulation or as part of parachutelike decelerators to help safely deliver large payloads to the surface of Mars.
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