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Mass. Researcher Will Use 3-D Printing to Develop Lego-like Materials for NASA

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By David Harris

NASA has awarded a UMass Lowell researcher more than $500,000 to design and fabricate lightweight materials that can be used to build a variety of structures for space travel.

Lowell resident Christopher Hansen, a professor in UMass Lowell’s College of Engineering, is one of seven researchers nationwide to receive a NASA Early Career Faculty Space Technology Research Grant to develop innovations to support the U.S. space program, government and the commercial airline industry.

Hansen’s research involves designing, testing and producing fiber-reinforced composite materials to create interlocking structures that can be assembled and disassembled — like sophisticated versions of Legos or Tinkertoys — to create crew and laboratory modules, external trusses, solar panels, antennas and other architectural elements needed to build space stations. The materials include carbon and boron, which are far lighter and less expensive to send into space than aluminum or steel.

In his research — which will take place over the next three years — Hansen will use cutting-edge plastics-molding processes and three-dimensional printing to make composite materials to fashion into struts and plates that can be assembled into a variety of panels and geometric shapes, according to a release. He’ll then determine how many of each of these components will be needed to build various spacecraft structures.