SOM and the University of Manchester envision the space habitat of the future

“How are we going to live in space?” is a question that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has already addressed through its work for the Moon Village of the European Space Agency (ESA). Now the architecture and planning giant is turning its attention to higher orbital heights by teaming up with the University of Manchester and the school’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Center to study the potential of graphene to build the next generation of spatial habitats.

Graphene is often presented as a miracle material; created in single atom thick sheets of carbon arranged in a structurally rigid network, the material is highly conductive of heat and electricity, extremely resistant to physical and chemical stressors, can be used to create surfaces transparent, has anticorrosive properties, and more. Stronger than steel and lighter than carbon fiber, graphene is still expensive to “grow” and lay out in multi-layered sheets, which limits its practical applications at the time of writing. Graphene was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004.

Inside the graphene space station observation deck. (Courtesy of SOM and Luxigon)

Building on Morgan Stanley’s projections that the space industry will be worth $1 trillion by 2040, the University of Manchester team is pushing ahead with their project to create a station-scale prototype space that uses graphene in its structural components. The station, made up of a series of pressurized capsules, will be lighter than comparable space habitats thanks to the graphene used in radiation shielding. SOM will study both the design and the fabrication of the prototype station.

Launching materials into space is a complicated undertaking that can become prohibitively expensive as the weight increases, and shipping complicated structures risks being damaged (and in the case of modular space stations, multiple trips are required). In addition to the habitat itself, the team will also research novel zero-gravity robotic manufacturing methods that use graphene composites to enable in-orbit construction of future space stations. As attention shifts to longer-term on-orbit and off-world occupation and industry, ESA, NASA and private companies are betting on in-situ manufacturing to cut costs.

A graphene-wrapped space station in Earth orbit
With the radiation protection panels in place. (Courtesy of SOM and Luxigon)
A space station orbiting the earth with viewing panels open
With the panels partially open, allowing astronauts to view the observation deck to the outer cosmos. (Courtesy of SOM and Luxigon)

“Designing for habitation in space poses some of the greatest challenges,” said Daniel Inocente, senior designer in SOM’s New York office, in a press release, “it means creating an environment that can sustain life and integrate crew support systems”.

“Conducting research using graphene allows us to test lightweight materials and design processes that could improve the efficiency of composite structures for potential applications on Earth and future use in space,” he said. -he adds.

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