So I checked the mail today and found a package from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories. This is not a usual thing for me.
I opened it to find that I had received a small chunk of aerogel as a result of filling out a survey on NASA's new Stardust-NExT website, a new site about our exploration of comets. Answer some questions about the site's usefulness and you might get a prize! I filled it out and forgot about it. Until today.
Aerogel is the lightest solid on earth. That's not hyperbole, it's listed with Guinness. Invented in 1931 to win a bet, it's what you get when you replace the liquid in a gel with a gas, and it's also incredibly strong, extremely resistant to heat, and 1,000 times less dense than glass. NASA uses it to insulate spacecraft (39 times more insulation than fiberglass) and they'll be using it on the Stardust spacecraft to capture comet particles. It's been used for the Mars Pathfinder and other rover missions, and it has a variety of earthbound applications such as skylight insulation, drug delivery, heavy metal absorption from water, and tennis racquets. Also, it's freaking amazing stuff to play with.
It's like it's not there. It's clear and weighs effectively nothing, like solid smoke. On a dark background it glows faintly blue due to the way its honeycomb structure scatters visible light. The edges just fade away to nothingness, it's like looking at a hologram. The accompanying letter explained all the reasons I shouldn't touch it — it would absorb the moisture from my hand, leaving an imprint that can't be removed, any point pressure can scratch or chip it, etc. — but a small chunk had already come off in shipping so I gave that a feel. It's dry to the touch, like brittle old Styrofoam, and it crumbles very easily. You can see the crack mine has through the middle. But it can also handle very high surface loads, bearing 4,000 times its own weight (just don't poke it).
The trickiest thing about aerogel? Photographing it with a digital camera. Try as I might I simply could not get my camera to focus on it, or on anything else if it was in the frame. Something about the way it reflects light confuses the hell out of my poor camera; I had to focus on something the same distance away and then face the aerogel with my finger on the button. So keep in mind that the real stuff looks approximately 20-25% cooler than it does here, you just can't see it.
Now to figure out what to do with it so it won't get messed up. How do you display solid smoke?
Oh, and when NASA asks you to fill out a survey, do it.