NASA Technical Progress to Giant Structures in Space

NASA has funded the NIAC phase 2 study for Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch. A thousand meters is longer and larger than many of the vehicles and things seen in Science Fiction TV and movies.

The original TV show Enterprise (NCC1701) was 288 meters long, the Next Generation Enterprise NCC1701D was 642 meters long and the Enterprise E (NCC1701E) was 686 meters long.

The Babylon 5 O’Neill cylinder 5 miles (8.0 km) long and 0.5–1.0 mile (0.80–1.61 km) in diameter.

The new Gerald Ford Aircraft carriers are 332 meters long.

The Tallest building, Burj Khalifa, is 882 meters tall.

Nextbigfuture covered the results of the phase 1 NASA NIAC study last September.

University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon researchers are working on the kilometer size structures deployable from a single SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.

They are using flexible materials which would be able to expand to 150 times their packed size.

The core of our solution is to use these high-expansion-ratio deployable structure (HERDS) build from mechanical metamaterials. Specifically, they exploit two kinematic discoveries made in the last 5 years: shearing auxetics and branched scissor mechanisms.

They intend to produce tube structures with an unprecedented 150x expansion ratio. The Phase I NIAC study has demonstrated the viability of this approach and pointed us to several technical problems that must be addressed in Phase II.

The key technical work in Phase II will be focused on four specific thrusts:
1) modeling and understanding the complex deployment dynamics of our expanding hierarchical structure in detail;
2) mitigating jamming during deployment in the presence of manufacturing errors and external disturbances using simulation and design optimization;
3) rapid prototyping and hardware-based design iteration to calibrate models and evaluate sub-system components; and
4) experimental validation of meter-scale prototypes with thousands of links to demonstrate deployment without jamming and high expansion ratios.

This work will have immediate and long term impact for NASAs objectives. In the near term, such a structure would make sustained human habitation in cislunar space, for example, as part of the Lunar gateway, possible. In the medium-to-longer term, such structures will be critical to sustaining humans in deep space. Finally, large structures will also advance astronomy by supporting large-scale telescope arrays.

They made tiny prototypes of the planned materials and structures during phase 1.

They have modeled the deployed structure and the final expanded state would be stable and maneuverable. They are working to ensure that there will be no issues during the deployment.

4 thoughts on “NASA Technical Progress to Giant Structures in Space”

  1. Does it, or does it just shift the problem up to the next order of magnitude?
    Do we switch from trying to fit a 1 km structure in 100t to a 10km structure in 1000t?

  2. I agree — perhaps not to be gone, but it is a solution to a problem which might soon become niche.

    This assuming that — knock on wood — no true showstopper turns up at Boca Chica.

  3. This is theoretically interesting, but it's also a solution for a problem soon to be gone.

    Sending a pliable puzzle of a structure into space tries to solve the problem of sending your unique big structure in a mass limited very expensive rocket, all in a single launch.

    And soon, we will have the luxury of reusable rockets with hundreds of tons of payload each. Making no longer necessary to send special items, and less going into such extreme measures for mass savings.

    But for deploying big antennae and structures in faraway science missions, it will still make sense.

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