The future of humankind may not be earth-bound. But before we can reach for the stars, we must figure out how to sustain life in space.
For an international design competition, a team of our young engineers tackled this complex problem and tested the boundaries of structural design in space. The team designed a concept titled ‘Helix’ inspired by DNA strands for a space station – a staging post for exploration of our solar system and beyond.
Resembling a children’s toy – a standing puppet on elastic strings that collapses when you push a button – their design could collapse down like an accordion to fit inside the body of a rocket. Out in space, the cables would be tensioned, and the modules would snap out and into place.
The Arup team won a special commendation for their design. Made possible through funding from our Research programme, such opportunities offer our graduates and young engineers more chances to exercise their imagination, ingenuity and inventiveness while gaining valuable teamwork experience.
10 people Capacity of station
60km/hSpeed of rotation
600mLength of the Helix
Designing for zero-gravity living
Imagine this: in the not-too-distant future, a colony of intrepid astronauts has made a home on a space station that orbits around the Red Planet. The inhabitants live and work in an outer rim of modules, powered by energy from the sun, which spin slowly around a central axis creating a small gravitational field. This micro-city of tomorrow is the design team’s vision of how we will conquer space.
There were three main criteria to meet the brief. The team had to design a modular structure so that it could transported to space and assembled in zero gravity. It had to be able to host ten people, with living quarters and services necessary to sustain human life. It also had to create its own field of gravity to allow its inhabitants to walk and work as if they were on earth.
The team started with deep research on the existing technologies, and then applied what they had learned in practical ways, mixing speculative design with common sense; and cutting-edge technology with basic physical prototypes –all skills that are directly transferable to everyday engineering projects.
They drew on NASA’s extensive archives containing research, such as on design pressures, safety factors, new materials – critical in helping the team learn about aerospace engineering and the physics of gravity in space. The key was to create a structure that would spin around a central axis, generating gravitational force at the perimeter. The engines and services for the space station could be clustered around the core of the structure, where the gravitational force was minimal, while humans occupied the outer rim.
We had to think through the whole picture from start to end, considering and resolving all construction, usability, architectural, structural and mechanical issues. Starting from a blank canvas and considering how to validate your own ideas holistically was rewarding. It helped our thinking process and taught us to channel creativity to our roles as structural engineers. ”Mitchell Mulvey Senior Engineer
Inspired by DNA strands
Similar to the Helix Bridge designed by Arup in Singapore, the unique form of the space station is a double helix. Compared to the circular entries in the competition that had a finite length, Arup’s DNA-inspired structure is designed to be added onto infinitely, and meets the requirement to be modular.
The team also drew inspiration from Japan’s Maglev or magnetic levitation train system when considering how to make the structure rotate. They designed an engine that would be driven by magnetic propulsion and powered by solar blankets suspended between the living quarters.
The modules, connected by slack cables, could collapse down like an accordion to fit inside the body of a rocket. This efficient design overcame the challenge of transporting and assembling the structure in space, and considered lift-off forces, in addition to the forces and stresses once the space station is constructed.
The final diagrid shape of their space station was created using parametric design, while 3D printing was used to test both the rotation of the helix and the team’s tension-based construction technique. They settled on an epoxy-resin material for structure that was inexpensive, lightweight and relatively stable when exposed to heat and cold – essential when orbiting near and far from the sun.