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Prof gets grant to lighten NASA load

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Outer Business

A professor on the campus of the University of Massachusetts has landed a $579 million grant from NASA to design and fabricate lightweight materials for use in construction of a variety of spacecraft.

The NASA grant will fund a three-year research project by Christopher Hansen, a professor in UMass Lowell’s College of Engineering. Hansen will work on the design and production of fiber-reinforced composite materials to create interlocking structures for assembly into crew and laboratory modules, among other space station elements.

Carbon- and boron-based materials are lighter and less expensive to send into space than aluminum or steel.

“Carbon fibers are light and are excellent in handling tension load but not compression; boron fibers are slightly heavier and more expensive but perform better in compression,” the UMass researcher explained. “Our choice of material will depend on the load applied to the structure.”

Hansen is among seven U.S. researchers recently awarded NASA Early Career Faculty Space Technology Research Grants to develop innovations to support the U.S. space program or other public and private aeronautics.

“NASA faces a number of technical challenges as we look to explore beyond low-Earth orbit,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. “U.S. universities possess the innovation and creativity for solving the problems we will face as we set our sights on the human exploration of an asteroid and eventually Mars.”

Hansen will use innovative plastics-molding processes and three-dimensional printing to make composite materials for struts and plates that can be assembled into a variety of panels and geometric shapes. His goal: To build everything so that it can be taken apart and the pieces recycled into new structures.

“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,” he said.