Project TESSERAE, a Self-Assembling Space Architecture

The line between science fact and science fiction is often now blurred, and nowhere is that more evident in the way our computing is…

Alasdair Allan
a year ago

The line between science fact and science fiction is often now blurred, and nowhere is that more evident in the way our computing is changing. However throughout the last decade we’ve seen the line blurred in other places and the landing of a rocket on its tail, followed by the flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy with its ballet landing of its side boosters, alongside the race to win the smallsat launcher war, and a serious push to make cubesats more useful and open source, means that space is now one of those places.

Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a Raspberry Pi on the space station, plans to 3D print a satellite, and hardware sent to the space station via a single email. Now Ariel Ekblaw — a student at MIT’s Media Lab and founder and lead of the Space Exploration Initiative at the lab — is looking to biology for inspiration.

The TESSERAE project is a design experiment in imagining how to bring the concept of geodesic domes—based on the structure of Carbon-60 that occurs in nature, known as a “Buckyballfrom Earth into orbit to help create habitable structures in space. Intended to be multi-use and low-cost, the orbiting modules should be self-assembling and reconfigurable.

“Unlike large-scale habitats proposed for entire space colonies, the TESSERAE should be thought of as flexible and reconfigurable modules to aid in agile mission operations. Our mission concept focuses on supporting Mars surface operations, with multiple, interlocking TESSERAE acting as an orbiting base, in addition to supporting the coming waves of space tourists in Low Earth Orbit.”

The prototype employs 3D-printed magnetic plates that snap together, with solar panels and sensors—including a 9-axis IMU—added. While the proof-of-concept prototypes made use of traditional PCBs, the next generation of prototypes will embed flexible circuitry into the tiles themselves, and make use of 3D-printed traces between them.

TESSERAE was one of 14 experiments to fly on a MIT-chartered ZERO-G flight in November last year. The flight was the initiative’s first research deployment. Other projects ranged across the disciplines from design, to architecture, engineering, biology, and robotics, through to music and art.

The flight validated the TESSERAE mechanical structure and self-assembly protocol. Another follow up experiment is scheduled to fly on an upcoming Blue Origin New Shepard sub-orbital flight to test embedded sensor network, communication architecture between tiles, and additional self-assembly.

You can read more about the TESSERAE project in Ekblaw’s paper on “Self-assembling Space Structures: Buckminsterfullerene Sensor Nodes,” published in the proceedings of the AIAA/AHS Adaptive Structures Conference, which was held in Kissimmee, Florida back in January.

Alasdair Allan
Scientist, author, hacker, maker, and journalist. Building, breaking, and writing. For hire. You can reach me at 📫
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