University-led Research Institutes Study New Exploration Tech


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Universities are helping NASA land American astronauts on the Moon by 2024 and establish a sustainable presence four years later. These partnerships come in all shapes and sizes to foster innovative research. 

NASA recently awarded a pair of Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs) to advance smart habitat systems. Meanwhile, the agency’s two established research institutes show progress made in different technology areas. Selected in 2017, the first-ever NASA STRIs are maturing bioengineering as well as manufacturing methods for lightweight, ultra-strong materials.

The inaugural STRIs are the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES) and the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP). Both of these undertakings harness a talent base of inventiveness and innovation to help shape NASA’s pursuit of Earth-independent, self-sustaining exploration mission capabilities.

Integrated Biosystem

The CUBES institute delves into a new multi-function, multi-organism bio-manufacturing system to produce on-demand materials, pharmaceuticals and food for deep space exploration.

“The CUBES team’s task is to create an integrated biosystem to harvest planetary resources and make food, medicine and building materials that can help future explorers live off the land,” said John Hogan of the Bioengineering Branch at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and the NASA technical point of contact for CUBES. “There’s a lot of work still remaining to make processes that are highly reliable, low in mass, power and volume, and able to make necessary mission products while in space.”

The CUBES team is led by Adam Arkin, principal investigator at the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Utah State University, University of California, Davis, University of Florida and Stanford University.

Tapping university expertise, both from professors and students, “generates creativity and solutions that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Hogan said. CUBES also includes an industry partner, Physical Sciences Inc., to supply next generation light capture technologies for plant and algal systems.

With an eye on the future, CUBES is pushing forward on multiple research pathways. The out-of-the-box thinking could lend a hand to future explorers venturing beyond low-Earth orbit.

New Paradigm 

The challenge for US-COMP is tackling the design paradigm for everything from crewed spacecraft to habitats to power systems with new materials. 

“Carbon nanotubes have theoretical mechanical properties that are much higher than any material we know right now,” explained Emilie Siochi, a senior materials scientist in the Advanced Materials and Processing Branch at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She is the NASA technical point of contact for US-COMP.

“There is potential ‘upside’ for this structural material, but we need to scale it up to quantities that are useful for actually building something,” Siochi said. “And that’s the jumping off point for the institute: an advanced material that could support an array of aerospace applications and benefit the U.S. manufacturing sector in the spirit envisioned by the Materials Genome Initiative.”

“The institute’s aim is to accelerate technology adoption through engagement of key players to enable a sustainable advanced aerospace materials ecosystem,” Siochi explained. US-COMP is a multidisciplinary team of 22 faculty members led by Gregory Odegard, principal investigator at the Michigan Technological University. 

Institute work now underway is in partnership with Florida State University, University of Utah, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Florida A&M University, Johns Hopkins University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, University of Colorado and Virginia Commonwealth University. Industry partners include Nanocomp Technologies and Solvay, with the U.S. Air Force Research Lab as a collaborator.

Computational Modeling

“To understand the properties of carbon nanotubes,” Siochi said. “You need to understand the science at various scales and at various phases of materials development.” 

A major objective of US-COMP is to use computational modeling to achieve a fundamental understanding of the material more quickly. With that know-how in hand, it can guide experiments and ultimately, guide manufacturing. 

Adventure Ahead

“We are trying to get this material to be relevant as soon as possible so it can be used for NASA’s future missions,” said Siochi. “US-COMP is taking on the problem of understanding and demonstrating what it takes to get high-strength composites from carbon nanotubes to actual use. We are developing new tools and new knowledge in this area to accelerate deployment of this material in practical applications relevant to NASA’s missions.”

In pulling the institute together, a big plus, Siochi underscored, is engaging universities and gaining access to student brainpower. To train and have a pipeline of students engaged in this new emerging technology, instilling problem-solving in a multidisciplinary environment and creating early prototypes to evaluate meaningful technology advancements is a win-win for NASA, the U.S. and the world.

“That’s the adventure we’ve embarked on,” Siochi said.

The two research institutes are multidisciplinary, university-led research entities. Each STRI is receiving up to $15 million over a five-year period of performance. These forward-thinking institutes were funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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