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SpaceX Ax-1 mission has futuristic self-assembly tech to try

Artist’s rendering of a future Tesserae self-assembling space station orbiting Mars.

Space Exploration Initiative of MIT/Fraunhofer Institute of TU Dortmund

On Friday, SpaceX launched the first fully private mission to the International Space Station, but the new astronauts will not only play tourists in orbit. Instead, they’ll conduct a number of experiments, including a cutting-edge construction technique that could shed light on how future space stations come together.

The Axiom-1 mission sends former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Allegria, American pilot and adventurer Larry Connor, Israeli investor and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe and Canadian entrepreneur and leader Mark Pathy to the ISS for an eight-day stay.

The team’s research program includes work with an air filtration device, cell biology experiments and a robotic swarm of self-assembling tiles that will be of particular interest to future astronauts.

The tiles are one of the first prototypes of “Tesserae”, or tessellated electromagnetic spatial structures for exploring reconfigurable and adaptive environments, developed by a team at the MIT Media Lab led by Ariel Ekblaw.

The hexagonal and pentagonal tiles are designed to coordinate via control code and self-assemble via “electro-permanent magnets”. The tiles are also capable of sealing to create a pressurized environment. The video below illustrates how a large-scale example of the technology could come to fruition.

The research builds on a previous test aboard the station that saw seven tiles come together in microgravity. This iteration of the experiment will involve using a set of tiles that work with Raspberry Pi controllers; they will be dropped in an aisle of the ISS to self-assemble.

“Latest prototypes include a full electro-permanent magnet sensing and actuation suite for full diagnostic capability (determining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bonds between tiles as they come together) and reconfigurability structure,” reads NASA’s blueprint for the experiment.

A statement from Axiom Space adds that the research will “explore a new frontier for in-orbit construction of satellites and future space habitats.”

If all goes well, MIT and Ekblaw hope the technology will eventually be used for beyond-Earth geodesic dome habitats, microgravity concert halls, and space cathedrals.

But before that, the experiment is about to begin with more trivial concerns: the first element of the project’s research program is to ensure that the system is fully charged.


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