Consequences of atomic oxygen interaction with silicone and silicone contamination on surfaces in low earth orbit
The exposure of silicones to atomic oxygen in low Earth orbit causes oxidation of the surface, resulting in conversion of silicone to silica. This chemical conversion increases the elastic modulus of the surface and initiates the development of a tensile strain. Ultimately, with sufficient exposure, tensile strain leads to cracking of the surface enabling the underlying unexposed silicone to be converted to silica resulting in additional depth and extent of cracking. The use of silicone coatings for the protection of materials from atomic oxygen attack is limited because of the eventual exposure of underlying unprotected polymeric material due to deep tensile stress cracking of the oxidized silicone. The use of moderate to high volatility silicones in low Earth orbit has resulted in a silicone contamination arrival at surfaces which are simultaneously being bombarded with atomic oxygen, thus leading to conversion of the silicone contaminant to silica. As a result of these processes, a gradual accumulation of contamination occurs leading to deposits which at times have been up to several microns thick (as in the case of a Mir solar array after 10 years in space). The contamination species typically consists of silicon, oxygen and carbon, which in the synergistic environment of atomic oxygen and UV radiation leads to increased solar absorptance and reduced solar transmittance. A comparison of the results of atomic oxygen interaction with silicones and silicone contamination will be presented based on the LDEF, EOIM-III, Offeq-3 spacecraft and Mir solar array in-space results. The design of a contamination pin-hole camera space experiment which uses atomic oxygen to produce an image of the sources of silicone contamination will also be presented.