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Mass. researcher awarded $579K to 3D-print Lego-like materials for NASA

NASA station


Considering the impact that 3D printing - such as the Zero-G Printer from Made in Space -  has already had on the near-future of manufacturing in space, it comes with little surprise that many experts in the field of engineering have been turning their focus towards new ways of thinking about anti-gravity manufacturing.  

Among others, mechanical engineer and mechanical engineering assistant professor Christopher Hansen of the University of Massachusetts has been focusing on the “Design and Fabrication of Aerospace-Grade Digital Composite Materials,” and was recently one of seven who were awarded a NASA Early Career Faculty Space Technology Research Grant.  The grant, which is designed to accelerate the development of innovative technologies originating from academia, is worth approximately $579,000 and will be spread out over a period of three years.  

Hansen’s project was identified by NASA as one of the more unique and transformational space technologies that they had seen - particularly because it focuses on usable technologies to develop lightweight and multifunctional construction materials and structures for use in future science and human exploration missions.   

“A kilogram of material can cost up to $10,000 to fly into space due to the fuel requirements of the booster rocket,” says Hansen. “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.”

While materials such as aluminum and steel are relatively easy to build structures with on earth, their weight makes it both difficult and expensive to ship to space.  Hansen’s research will focus on finding replacement materials and structural designs that can replace them in an anti gravity environment.  His goal is to create a library of modular components - similar to LEGOs or Tinkertoys - that can be assembled in many different ways to create a much larger structure.  This method could be used to create everything from a generic shelter to more complicated pressurized crew and laboratory modules.

“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,” adds Hansen.

To create the various modular components, Hansen will use a combination of fabrication techniques including pultrusion and 3D printing and materials including carbon and boron fibers.  The resulting pieces will be one-dimensional shapes that can be converted into three-dimensional building blocks including cubes, spheres and cylinders, among others.  

Aside from being able to ship the components up to space more easily, the design of the structures will also allow them to be disassembled easily to be repurposed or transported to another area rather than building stationary structures.  

“Technology drives exploration, and these researchers will provide fuel for NASA’s innovation engine,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate.  “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.”

While we’re likely a few years away from seeing the fruits of Hansen’s labor, it’s certainly safe to say that it definitely feels like we’re definitely living in the future if we’re already talking about building 3D printed modular structures for space habitats.