Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane for Space based solar power

Last month, a team of science and engineering students at Strathclyde University developed an innovative ‘space web’ experiment which was carried on a rocket from the Arctic Circle to the edge of space.

The experiment, known as Suaineadh – or ‘twisting’ in Scots Gaelic, was an important step forward in space construction design and demonstrated that larger structures could be built on top of a light-weight spinning web, paving the way for the next stage in the solar power project.

The current project, called SAM (Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane) will test the deployment of an ultra light cellular structure that can change shape once deployed. The structure is made of cells that are self-inflating in vacuum and can change their volume independently through nanopumps.

“The structure replicates the natural cellular structure that exists in all living things. The independent control of the cells would allow us to morph the structure into a solar concentrator to collect the sunlight and project it on solar arrays. The same structure can be used to build large space systems by assembling thousands of small individual units.”

The project is part of a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) study led by Dr John Mankins of Artemis Innovation. The University of Strathclyde represents the European section of an international consortium involving American researchers, and a Japanese team, led by Professor Nobuyuki Kaya of the University of Kobe, a world leader in wireless power transmission.

The Self-inflating Adaptive Membrane (SAM) concept was developed at the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory of the University of Strathclyde. SAM is a semi-flexible membrane consisting of hexagonal elements. The main difference of this structure is the coupling of the stiff properties of the pillows and the flexibility of the seam lines which enables the structure’s adaptability to various mission stages. The design is ultra-lightweight, fully autonomously deployable, expandable due to its modular shape, resistant against micro meteoroids and space debris impacts because of its separated pillow volumes and adaptable to various environmental conditions.

LS-DYNA simulation of inflated SAM module

The Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane project website is here.

For the success of future space missions involving large space structure, the development of new deployable structures and the improvement of current designs are of great importance. Applications can be easily envisioned through space based solar power systems, truss structures, masts, crew quarters, transport tunnels, large solar arrays, solar concentrators, solar sails or antennas. A valuable option for these large ultra light structures is the exploitation of inflatables. Reasons for the use of inflatable structures range from their low cost over exceptional packaging efficiency, deployment reliability, low stowage volume to low weight. Despite the fact that there has been no major leap on inflatable structure in space since the IN-STEP Inflatable Antenna Experiment in 1998, research has been undertaken in various institutions all over the world in the field of inflatable structures; new membrane materials have been discovered that can withstand the space environment, advanced simulation tools were developed that capture the highly non-linear behaviour of the inflation process and rigidization techniques have been investigated making the structure non-reliant on the inflation gas after deployment.

SAM deployed from cube satellite

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