3 questions: Ariel Ekblaw on building beautiful architecture in space | MIT News
Living in space today is a cramped and utilitarian endeavor. Astronauts arriving on the International Space Station (ISS) are prepared for a stay in tight spaces, surrounded by exposed wiring, bulky electronics and beige floor-to-ceiling panels.
What if the accommodations in orbit could be more spacious, more livable and even more beautiful? This is a question that drives TESSERAE, an ambitious space architecture project led by Ariel Ekblaw SM ’17, PhD ’20, founder and director of the Space Exploration Initiative at MIT’s Media Lab.
TESSERAE (acronym for Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments) is Ekblaw’s unique design for future space habitats, based on a system of self-assembling magnetic tiles. The basic idea is that once deployed in space, the wall-sized tiles would autonomously connect to create spacious, livable and reconfigurable structures.
In April, the project achieved a recent milestone when samples from TESSERAE were flown to the ISS with Axiom Space AX-1, the first mission to the ISS to fly a fully privately funded crew. During their 15-day stay, the paying astronauts performed tests on TESSERAE, as well as other science projects aboard the space station.
Following the assignment, MIT News sat down with Ekblaw to see how TESSERAE fared and what the future of space habitats might hold.
Q: What is your vision for TESSERAE? How could this architecture change the way we build and live in space?
A: Our long-term vision is to be able to expand humanity’s presence in orbit, which means being able to build inspiring large-scale space architecture that really delights people when they float inside – that fleshy feel goosebumps you feel when you enter a magnificent magnificent cathedral or a concert hall.
What would it be like to be able to build large-scale structures like this in orbit? How to build to no longer be constrained by the size of the rocket that is sent into orbit? This led us to look at the self-assembly of modular tiles that can be flat-packed for their journey to orbit, and can autonomously stack and self-assemble into a larger-scale structure once complete. they are released.
The first structure we designed is based on a buckyball geometry, which has one of the best surface to volume ratios. We want to maximize the volume for the given surface, which is the expensive material that needs to be shipped into orbit.
In this mosaic buckyball, we hope it could be either a single room, the size of a crew quarters, or the kitchen of a galley, or a science lab. And then you can stack several modules on top of each other to create a station. Further into the future, we may be able to have a very large, large buckeyball in orbit that has a lot more open space, and looks more like a space cathedral or a concert hall or a gathering space.
Q: Explain the technology to us – what makes TESSERAE work?
A: The tiles themselves are custom designed so that the geometry of the tiles when docked forms a particular target shape. How they moor depends on custom electro-permanent magnets and new design. They are magnets that are always on and always want to bring things together without requiring power, which is good for orbital power budgets. But then when you want the tiles to come apart, you run a current through the magnets and they can come apart on their own. The final piece is the code and sensing that allows these tiles to sense their own status with their neighbors and make decisions about whether they should stay together or split up.
Q: How did the structures behave during the ISS tests?
A: I was very lucky during my PhD, as I was able to test TESSERAE on a few parabolic flights, a suborbital launch with Blue Origin, and a 30-day mission aboard the International Space Station. But what was different in this last mission was that the tiles were trapped in a relatively small box. So this new mission with Axiom is a huge new improvement and a major milestone in the project as we were able to test the tiles in a much larger confined volume called MWA, the maintenance work area inside Node 2 on the ISS. And even better, the astronauts were given permission to take the tiles out of their confinement and were allowed to float completely and self-assemble in the aisle.
It was a great opportunity for us to test three things. The first was calibration. We wanted to demonstrate a good bond between two tiles, and observe a bad bond and see if the tiles separated on their own as they were supposed to, and it succeeded. Second, we wanted to see how many tiles could fit together precisely in a short period of minutes; we have regularly seen two diads and triads come together. And third, the astronauts helped assemble the tiles into a dome, and we wanted to see if that dome was a stable configuration. It was possible that the density of the magnets would mistakenly trigger the sensors, causing the tiles to move away from each other. But they didn’t – they held this formation, and we were able to get a picture of this stable dome in front of the cupola.
These tiles are a miniature test bed platform, the size of my palm. We are working in parallel on several complementary avenues to reach the scale of human habitation. We would like to extend this technology iteratively, from palm-sized tiles to dinner plate-sized tiles, and package them on a CubeSat where they would be stacked like a Pez dispenser in a large inflatable cage. The tiles would be distributed in a large space and allowed to do full self-assembly outside the space station. We also build a human-sized tile. We need to figure out where the magnets will go and what power architecture is needed, which we will eventually merge into a habitat-wide deployment.
There’s a lot of technical development work to be done, and I consider myself very lucky to have started this project at MIT, where there’s this incredible aerospace history, and incredible mentors and collaborators. Absolutely in my lifetime, our intention is for this to be a self-assembling technique of orbiting space structures that humans can actually live in.