Reconfigurable space structures


Martin Nisser

Martin Nisser

Rapid prototyping platforms such as 3D printers used for digital fabrication are today able to manufacture custom objects for specific tasks. For example, a 3D printer deployed to the International Space Station has been able to print objects such as wrenches for astronauts on demand. However, these objects cannot be reconfigured for other tasks, and their constituent materials can generally not be recycled in order to reprint other objects for different applications. For long duration and deep space missions, digital fabrication techniques will need to adapt to allow fabricating items capable of acquiring multiple geometric configurations. This would allow finite material to be used to create items that can fulfill multiple tasks, thereby shirking reliance on a constant stream of raw material feedstock that will no longer be available.

Objects capable of morphological adaptation would address many challenges associated with today’s limitations on launch mass and volume, as well as facilitating stowage during launch. Such reconfigurable objects could realize new applications including rapid prototyping, forming temporary structures to aid in spacecraft inspection and astronaut assistance, and actively changing their inertia properties, while also enabling replacement or augmentation of structures over multiple launches.

This research introduces a concept for a reconfigurable structure based on pivoting cubes that achieve their pivoting maneuvers by controlling the magnetic fields of electromagnets embedded in their edges. We exploit a novel framework for controlling electromagnets to form reconfigurable structures in space by controlling their polarization in such a way as to allow the formation of temporary hinges and pivoting between adjacent modules. Supplementing laboratory experiments on an airtable, pivoting maneuvers were successfully executed in microgravity on a parabolic flight in May 2021.