January 26, 2023

MIT TESSERAE Project: Building Beautiful Architecture in Space

An artists illustration of TESSERAE environments in area. Displayed in foreground is a self-assembling storage system, autonomously connecting to other structures. Credit: Courtesy of the scientists
3 Questions: MITs Ariel Ekblaw on Building Beautiful Architecture in Space
The TESSERAE project, a design for self-assembling space structures and habitats, has sent prototypes to the International Space Station.
Living in space today is a utilitarian and confined venture. Astronuats who get here on the International Space Station (ISS) are prepared for a remain in tight quarters, surrounded by exposed electrical wiring, large electronic devices, and floor-to-ceiling beige paneling.
What if in-orbit accomodations could be more large, habitable, and even stunning? Thats a concern driving TESSERAE, an ambitious area architecture project led by Ariel Ekblaw SM 17, PhD 20, the creator and director of the Space Exploration Initiative in MITs Media Lab.

TESSERAE (an acronym for Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments) is Ekblaws unique design for future space environments, based on a system of magnetic, self-assembling tiles. The standard concept is that, once deployed in area, wall-sized tiles would link autonomously to produce large, habitable, and reconfigurable structures.
In April, the task cleared a current turning point when TESSERAE samples were flown up to the ISS with Axiom Space AX-1, the first ISS-bound objective to fly a totally privately-funded team. During their 15-day stay, the paying astronauts ran tests on TESSERAE, along with other science jobs aboard the space station.
A TESSERAE structure made from numerous pentagonal and hexagonal tiles, each linked autonomously through software and electromagnets. Credit: Courtesy of the researchers
Following the mission, MIT News signed in with Ekblaw to see how TESSERAE fared, and what the future of area environments might hold.
Q: What is your vision for TESSERAE? How could this architecture change the method we live and construct in area?
A: Our long-lasting vision is to be able to scale humankinds existence in orbit, which means being able to construct massive, motivating space architecture that truly thrills people as they drift within– that sense of goosebumps you get when you stroll inside a beautiful sensational cathedral or an auditorium.
What would it look like to be able to construct large-scale structures like that in orbit? How can we construct so that we are no longer constrained by the size of the rocket were sending out into orbit? That led us to look at self-assembly of modular tiles that can be packed flat for their trip to orbit, and can construct up and self-assemble autonomously into a larger-scale structure once they are released.
The first structure weve developed is based on a buckyball geometry, which has one of the very best surface area-to-volume ratios. We want to maximize volume for the given surface location, which is the pricey material that needs to get shipped up into orbit.
Within this tessellated buckyball, were hoping it might be either a single room, about the size of a crew quarters, or the galley for a kitchen, or a science laboratory. And after that you might stack several modules on top of each other to develop a station. Further in the future, we may be able to have a really grand, large buckeyball in orbit that has a lot more open space, and is something more like a space cathedral or auditorium or gathering space.
A small TESSERAE protoype is tested in the zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station. Credit: Courtesy of the researchers
Q: Walk us through the tech– what makes TESSERAE work?
A: The tiles themselves are custom-designed so the geometry of the tiles when they dock forms a specific target shape. Then when you want the tiles to separate, you run a present through the magnets and they can undock autonomously.
Q: How did the structures fare in the ISS tests?
A: I was extremely fortunate through my PhD, as I was able to test TESSERAE on a couple parabolic flights, a suborbital launch with Blue Origin, and a 30-day mission aboard the International Space Station. What was various about that last mission was that the tiles were trapped in a fairly small box.
This was an excellent chance for us to check 3 things. The very first was calibration. We wanted to show a good bond between 2 tiles, and to observe a bad bond and see if the tiles autonomously separated as they were supposed to, which succeeded. Second, we desired to see how numerous tiles might come together properly by themselves in a short duration of a few minutes; we routinely saw two triads and diads come together. And third, the astronauts helped pop the tiles together into a dome, and we desired to see if that dome was a stable configuration. It was possible that the density of magnets would erroneously activate the sensors, causing the tiles to pop far from each other. They didnt– they held that development, and we were able to get a photo of that steady dome in front of the cupola.
We d like to iteratively scale this technology up, from palm-sized to dinner-plate-sized tiles, and load them on a CubeSat where they would be stacked like a Pez dispenser in a huge inflatable cage. The tiles would be given into a big space and enabled to do total self-assembly outside of the space station. Were also constructing a human-scale tile.
Theres a great deal of engineering development work to be done, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have actually begun this job at MIT, where theres this amazing storied history of aerospace, and incredible mentors and partners. Absolutely within my life time, our objective is to have this be a strategy of self-assembling space structures in orbit that people can in fact live in.

An artists illustration of TESSERAE habitats in area. Even more in the future, we may be able to have an actually grand, large buckeyball in orbit that has much more open space, and is something more like an area cathedral or performance hall or event area.
A: I was really lucky through my PhD, as I was able to check TESSERAE on a couple parabolic flights, a suborbital launch with Blue Origin, and a 30-day mission aboard the International Space Station. We desired to demonstrate an excellent bond in between 2 tiles, and to observe a bad bond and see if the tiles autonomously separated as they were supposed to, and that was successful. The tiles would be given into a huge area and enabled to do total self-assembly outside of the area station.

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