TESSERAE: Self-Assembling Space Architecture


Ariel Ekblaw / Responsive Environments

Artist Rendering of TESSERAE (TU Dortmund)


How will we build the coming generations of Space Architecture—the modules, space ships, and space stations that will ensconce our space-faring species? Can we move beyond the 20th century paradigm of cylindrical tubes in orbit, to geodesic dome habitats,  to microgravity concert halls, to space cathedrals?The next generation of space architecture should delight, inspire, and protect humanity for our future in the near, and far, reaches of space. 

The future of human habitation in space lies in self-assembling, adaptive, and reconfigurable structures. Rather than transporting fixed, rigid habitation modules and risking astronaut Extravehicular Activities (EVAs) during construction, we can lower payload weight, reduce assembly complexity, and revolutionize space-structure modularity by relying on reconfigurable, self-assembly. 

We are currently undertaking a multi-year research effort to study, characterize, prototype and test "TESSERAE":  Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments.  Each TESSERAE structure is made from a set of tiles. These tiles are tuned to autonomously self-assemble into a particular geometry—in our initial prototypes, we have focused on the buckminsterfullerene (20 hexagonal tiles, 12 pentagonal tiles). Each tile at minimum includes  a rigid outer shell, responsive sensing and control code for bonding diagnosis, electro-permanent magnets for dynamically controllable bonding actuation, and an on-board power harvesting and power management system. Habitat-scale TESSERAE tiles will also include clamping and sealing for pressurization. Tiles are released in microgravity testing environments to quasi-stochastically self assemble. 

The “TESSERAE” name and multi-tile structure hearken to the small, colored tiles used in Roman mosaics, where many standard pieces, or “tesserae,” interlock to form a larger creation. We make this reference to ancient history, when designing an artifact of our space exploration future, to tie architectural elements together across scales and across millennia.

TESSERAE will function as multi-use, low-cost orbiting modules that supply a critical space infrastructure for the next generation of zero gravity habitats, science labs, staging areas for on-surface exploration, and more. TESSERAE should be thought of as flexible and reconfigurable modules to aid in both small-scale, agile mission operations and grand-scale, iteratively expanding space architecture. Our mission concept focuses on supporting LEO, Lunar and Mars operations, with dual-use orbit and surface capability: 

  • Tiles are packed flat and condensed for launch
  • Tiles are released after orbit insertion to quasi-stochastically self-assemble into the target geometry, while floating in microgravity
  • Once assembled, the structure can be reconfigured on demand (e.g., where a berthing port tile was needed yesterday, a cupola tile can be replaced tomorrow)
  • Tiles can be disassembled entirely, packed flat again in an EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) vehicle, and then deployed and "snap-assembled" with astronaut assists on the lunar or martian surface

Multiple, interlocking TESSERAE can serve as a larger volume orbiting base (e.g.,  "MOSAIC": Mars Orbiting Self-Assembling Interlocking Chambers), in addition to supporting the coming waves of space tourists and space hotels in low Earth orbit. 

Microgravity Testing & Development

#1.  Parabolic Flight, 2017

An early TESSERAE prototype was successfully deployed on the Space Exploration Initiative's November 2017 zero gravity flight. This research mission validated the v1 mechanical structure, magnet polarity arrangements, and self-assembly protocol. 

2017 Parabolic Flight with Space Exploration Initiative

#2. Suborbital Rocket Launch (interior cabin), 2019 

A deployment on Blue Origin's suborbital launch vehicle, New Shepard, tested the embedded sensor network, communication architecture between tiles, on-demand actuation of electropermanent magnets for tile-tile bonding control, and power budget over three sustained minutes of microgravity.  

2019 Suborbital Launch with Blue Origin 

#3. ISS 30 day mission (interior), 2020

On March 6th, 2020, the SpaceX launch (CRS-20) brought seven TESSERAE v3 hardware tiles to the International Space Station for a 30 day mission. The tiles (two pentagons, five hexagons) were selectively released on station, inside the NanoRacks "BlackBox"  platform, to test autonomous self-assembly and docking over many days of sustained microgravity. These latest prototypes include an extensive suite of sensing and electro-permanent magnet actuation control code for full diagnostic capability (determining "good" and "bad" bonds between tiles as they join together) and structure reconfigurability. Tiles successfully self-assembled in micro-gravity and demonstrated effective use of the electro-permanent magnets for error correction. 

SpaceX CRS-20 launch and 30 day mission

#4. Axiom Space Ax-1 mission, 2022

TESSERAE (Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments) is a multi-year research program, in collaboration with the Aurelia Institute, exploring self-assembly methods for in-space construction. Named after the small tiles in ancient Roman mosaics, the modular TESSERAE tiles can join to create a larger structure. TESSERAE tiles pack flat for launch; once activated, they form a robotic swarm of autonomous and self-assembling units used for on-demand construction, with future applications ranging from an extra room on a space station, to parabolic mirrors, to a home base on other worlds. The prototypes launching on the Ax-1 mission include an extensive suite of sensing and electro-permanent magnets that monitor diagnostics – provide insight into the quality of bonds between tiles – and drive conformations. This scaled demonstration will build on previous microgravity evaluations of the TESSERAE experiment to explore a new frontier for in-orbit construction of satellites and future space habitats. 

Ax-1 research expands access to ISS

TESSERAE Peer-Reviewed & Conference Publications: 


Ekblaw, Ariel, David Zuniga, Keith Crooker, and Joseph Paradiso. “Self-Assembling and Self-Regulating Space Stations: Mission Concepts for Modular, Autonomous Habitats.” 50th International Conference on Environmental Systems, July 2021.


Ekblaw Ph.D. Thesis on TESSERAE: 

Ekblaw, Ariel. "Self-Aware Self-Assembly for Space Architecture: Growth Paradigms for In-Space Manufacturing." PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2020.



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Ariel Ekblaw


Ariel Ekblaw


Ariel Ekblaw


Ariel Ekblaw


Ariel Ekblaw


Ariel Ekblaw / Responsive Environments


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