Professor awarded NASA grant to develop building blocks for use in space missions
Mechanical engineering Asst. Prof. Christopher Hansen is one of seven young faculty researchers nationwide awarded a NASA Early Career Faculty Space Technology Research Grant. The program is designed to accelerate the development of innovative technologies originating from academia that address high-priority needs for America’s space program as well as other government agencies and the commercial flight industry. Hansen’s grant is worth approximately $579,000 spread over a period of three years.
Hansen’s project, entitled “Design and Fabrication of Aerospace-Grade Digital Composite Materials,” was identified by the space agency as among the unique or transformational space technologies that will address challenges in developing lightweight and multifunctional construction materials and structures for use in future science and human exploration missions.
Typical materials used on Earth to build structures, such as aluminum and steel, are heavy and expensive to send into space.
“A kilogram of material can cost up to $10,000 to fly into space due to the fuel requirements of the booster rocket,” notes Hansen, who is the principal investigator for the project. “That’s why NASA is interested in funding research to develop very strong yet lightweight components or building blocks made of fiber-reinforced composite materials.”
Hansen’s goal is to create a library of components, almost like space Legos, K’Nex or Tinkertoy, where interlocking pieces can be assembled in many ways to build a whole range of structures — from pressurized crew and laboratory modules to external trusses, nodes, solar arrays, antennas and other components like those found in the International Space Station.
“My research aims to conduct fundamental computational design and optimization of composite materials followed by experimentation in order to manufacture parts and test structures for aerospace applications,” explains Hansen.
Other projects chosen by NASA from the University of Florida, Yale University, Brigham Young University, Boston University, Purdue University and Carnegie Mellon University range from creating a compact, low-power pulsed optical communication system for spacecraft to developing active elastic skin and artificial muscle for soft robots.
“Technology drives exploration, and these researchers will provide fuel for NASA’s innovation engine,” says Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. “Sustained investments must be made to mature the capabilities required to reach the challenging destinations that await exploration, such as an asteroid, Mars and outer planets. These investments help to assure a robust university research community dedicated to advanced space technology development.”
Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose
Hansen plans to create one-dimensional struts and two-dimensional plates that can be assembled into a panel, sphere, cube, cylinder, boom, etc., and will perform computational optimization to see how many types of these struts and plates are needed to create such structures.
Hansen will use fabrication techniques such as pultrusion and 3-D printing to make the composite materials. To create the struts, he will use either carbon or boron fibers.
“Carbon fibers are light and are excellent in handling tensional load, but not compression,” he notes. “Boron fibers are slightly heavier and more expensive, but perform better with compression. Our choice of material will depend on the load applied to the structure.”
He adds: “Another unique aspect of this project is ‘reversibility.’ Anything constructed can be taken apart again and the pieces reused to make other new structures.”
For example, rather than discard a structure once it has reached the end of its useful life, astronauts in the International Space Station can reversibly disassemble the structure and repurpose it to build some other new structure.
“Once again, every kilogram you have to send up into space is very expensive so if you can harvest even half of the materials already in orbit and reuse them to form a new structure, that would be very helpful in terms of time, energy and cost. NASA is always interested in reducing the cost of launches, reusing materials and reducing a mission’s environmental impact for a more sustainable future.”