Professor Gets NASA Funding to Develop Composite Building Blocks

An engineer from the University of Massachusetts has been awarded with funding from NASA to develop composite building blocks for use in space.

Prof Christopher Hansen, a Mechanical Engineering Assistant is one of several young faculty researchers across the U.S to be awarded a NASA Early Career Faculty Space Technology Research Grant. The program is designed to accelerate the development of innovative technologies coming from Universities that address the needs of the space program along with other government agencies and the commercial flight industry.

Spread over three years Hansen will receive over $500,000 from NASA to develop his project (“Design and Fabrication of Aerospace-Grade Digital Composite Materials”) to address the challenges in developing lightweight and multifunctional construction materials and structures for use in future science and human exploration missions.

Typical materials used on Earth to build structures, such as aluminium and steel, are heavy and expensive to send into space. A kilo of materials for example can cost NASA up to $10,000 to fly into space due to the fuel requirements of the booster rockets.

The professors aim is to create a library of components, almost like space lego’s where interlocking pieces can be put together in many different ways to build a whole range of structures, from pressurised crew and laboratory modules to external trusses, nodes, solar arrays, antennas and other components like those found in the International Space Station.

Hansen plans to create one-dimensional struts and two-dimensional plates that can be assembled into a panel, sphere, cube, cylinder, boom, etc., and will perform computational optimisation to see how many types of these struts and plates are needed to create such structures. Using fabrication techniques such as pultrusion and 3-D printing he can then make the composite materials.

To create the struts, either carbon or boron fibres. Carbon fibres are light and are excellent in handling tensional load, but not compression, Boron fibres are slightly heavier and more expensive, but perform better with compression. The choice of material will depend on the load applied to the structure.

Another unique aspect of this project is ‘reversibility.’ Anything constructed can be taken apart again and the pieces reused to make other new structures, rather than discard a structure once it has reached the end of its useful life, astronauts in the International Space Station could reversibly disassemble the structure and repurpose it to build something different.

Other projects chosen by NASA from the University of Florida, Yale University, Brigham Young University, Boston University, Purdue University and Carnegie Mellon University range from creating a compact, low-power pulsed optical communication system for spacecraft to developing active elastic skin and artificial muscle for soft robots.