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.