Launching the Quest for Life Beyond Earth

Engineers lead NASA Effort to Design Smart Habitats in Deep Space

Science-fiction writers have long told stories about the mysteries of space and life beyond Earth. Over the past 50 years, novels like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Martian” have only stimulated our already inquisitive minds.

“Humans are explorers by nature and cannot resist seeking an understanding about the world around us,” says Shirley Dyke, a professor of mechanical and civil engineering at Purdue.

With a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, she serves as principal investigator of the multidisciplinary Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats Institute (RETHi). NASA has tapped RETHi to advance the design of deep space habitats using resilient autonomous systems. Toward that goal, NASA will provide the institute as much as $15 million over a five-year period.

Dyke and her collaborators will focus on developing smart habitats, or SmartHabs, that remain operational with or without manned crews present. To make this possible, they will leverage expertise in civil infrastructure with such advanced technology fields as modular and autonomous robotics and hybrid simulation.

“We can’t really gather much data from existing space habitats, so we need to develop ‘virtual’ space habitat systems where we can generate data for both normal operation and scenarios where disruptions occur,” says Jim Braun, the Herrick Professor of Engineering at Purdue and a RETHi team leader.

“In addition to pure simulation environments, we’ll also develop cyber-physical testbeds that combine physical and virtual subsystems. These testbeds will allow demonstrations that are more realistic representations than just purely simulated systems.”

SmartHabs must combat the hazards, deterioration and commonplace faults that can occur in all electromechanical systems. Therefore, RETHi must incorporate principles of resilience to reduce, capture, model and control those emergent behaviors such systems can exhibit.

“We need to learn to design systems that can be diagnosed and repaired, even when humans are not present,” Dyke says. “Long periods of dormancy are expected in space habitats, and yet they must be maintained and be ready to go when human crews do arrive.”

This will require strategies using design architectures, sensing systems that detect and diagnose failures, and robots that can work in teams to autonomously maintain and repair a habitat. Ensuring consistency in function and safety, RETHi will develop transformative, autonomous SmartHabs and related technologies that rapidly adapt and recover from expected and unexpected disruptions.

One of the institute’s major goals will be to ensure smart habitats can overcome any demands caused by isolation or extreme environments — temperature fluctuations, galactic cosmic rays, destructive dust, meteoroid impacts, vibrations and solar particle events.

“This is an exciting opportunity for the RETHi research team to play a role in shaping the future smart space habitats,” Dyke says. “Developing resilient space habitats continues Purdue’s legacy of leadership and collaboration in science, engineering and space exploration.”

RETHi is a partnership between 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.

In addition to Dyke and Braun, the Purdue-led proposal team for this project includes:

  • Ilias Bilionis, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
  • Antonio Bobet, professor of civil engineering.
  • David Cappelleri, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
  • George Chiu, assistant dean for global engineering programs and professor of mechanical engineering.
  • Mohammad Jahanshahi, assistant professor of civil engineering.
  • Amin Maghareh, research assistant professor.
  • Karen Marais, associate professor of aeronautical and astronautical engineering and associate head for undergraduate education.
  • Julio Ramirez, professor of civil engineering and center director of the Network Coordination Office for the National Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure.
  • Dawn Whitaker, associate director of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.