NASA selects Purdue to develop smart and resilient deep space habitats
Purdue Civil Engineering leads $15M effort to establish humans on the moon and Mars
Purdue researchers say that underground lava tubes are one of the most likely options for establishing settlements on the moon. Lava tubes would shield inhabitants from radiation, temperature fluctuation and meteorite impacts.
The launchpad for humanity's next giant leap will very likely start at Purdue University.
Since well before Neil Armstrong made his — and humanity's — first step on the moon, a dream for many (and the basis for countless works of science fiction) has been to establish permanent settlements in space. And now, led by a research team from the Lyles School of Civil Engineering, humanity is closer to making that dream a reality.
In the spring, NASA selected Purdue's Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats Institute (RETHi) as one of its two multidisciplinary, university-led Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs) charged with developing technologies critical to establishing a sustainable human presence on the moon and Mars. The grant is for $15 million over a five-year period.
The RETHi team will conduct research needed to develop resilient deep-space habitats that can adapt, absorb and rapidly recover from expected and unexpected disruptions. RETHi will leverage Purdue's world-class expertise in civil infrastructure responsive to catastrophic natural hazards and merge it with expertise from leaders in the fields of autonomous robotics, smart buildings, hybrid simulation, transformable architecture, and diagnostics and prognostics for intelligent structural-health management.
The project is led by principal investigator Shirley J. Dyke, professor of mechanical engineering and civil engineering, and she is joined, within civil engineering, by professors Antonio Bobet, Mohammad Jahanshahi and Julio Ramirez. The multidisciplinary partnership includes additional researchers from Purdue, the University of Connecticut, Harvard University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
"Partnering with universities lets us tap into new expertise, foster innovative ideas, as well as expand the research and development talent base for both aerospace and broader applications," says Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "We're excited to work with these two new STRIs to develop smart habitat technologies for exploratory missions on the moon and Mars."
Dyke says the team's research over the next five years has three thrusts: building resilience into "Smarthabs," using sensors and data to monitor and manage the health of the habitat, and providing robots with the ability to handle automated repair and maintenance.
"Our focus is on developing smart deep-space habitats that are self-aware," Dyke says. "The idea is to establish the knowhow to build smart habitats that can monitor what's happening, respond, and take corrective actions — whether that is through humans, robots or automation."
Currently, the team is developing a cyber-physical test bed that combines mechanical and computational elements. It will allow for system-level studies — for experiments in ways intelligence can be integrated into complex systems, for assessing expected environmental challenges in creating and maintaining a settlement, and for establishing systems that can respond swiftly and accurately to problems.
Ramirez, the Karl H. Kettelhut Professor of Civil Engineering, says this is an exciting time to be a civil engineer.
"This project is what civil engineering is all about," Ramirez says. "It's about setting new horizons and pushing the boundaries as humanity progresses forward by providing shelter and an environment to achieve its best. This is all deeply rooted in Purdue’s space-related tradition as home to so many astronauts, like Neil Armstrong, and to train the next generation of leaders in the field.”
Jahanshahi, assistant professor of civil engineering, says this project provides a unique opportunity for educating the next generation of civil engineers who will be collaborating with engineers from other disciplines to tackle challenging problems of the future.
"In addition, the lessons learned throughout this project will be used to further enhance the resilience of our civil infrastructure here on Earth," Jahanshahi says.
"This is a great opportunity for our students," adds Bobet, the Edgar B. and Hedwig M. Olson Professor of Civil Engineering, "as well as for the civil engineering community at large. We will use the expertise that we have accumulated here on Earth by addressing all the past challenges and hazards, to learn and tackle the enormous difficulties that a permanent habitat faces in space and, most importantly, to educate the civil engineers of the future — those who will build the infrastructure that will make it possible for humanity to thrive on the moon and Mars and beyond."
Much of this effort will be conducted at the Robert L. and Terry L. Bowen Laboratory for Large-Scale Civil Engineering Research and the Ray W. Herrick Laboratories, where the RETHi team plans to build scaled cyber-physical experiments to demonstrate the technologies.
Shirley J. Dyke, professor of mechanical engineering and civil engineering
About RETHi - the Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats Institute
RETHi began in 2017 as a New Horizons seed grant awarded by the Purdue University Office of the Provost. A competitive program, New Horizons challenges established senior faculty to create new academic areas for the coming decades. Team members included Antonio Bobet, the Edgar B. and Hedwig M. Olson Professor of Civil Engineering; Shirley J. Dyke, professor of mechanical engineering and civil engineering; Julio Ramirez, the Karl H. Kettelhut Professor of Civil Engineering; and Jay Melosh, distinguished professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and physics.
In addition to conducting research, the team developed an honors class called “Life on Mars,” where students studied the challenges facing future Mars settlers and discussed and debated approaches for combating them.