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UMaine Engineering Team To Test Inflatable Habitats For NASA Moon Mission

The lunar habitat will have to shield astronauts from cosmic rays and solar radiation.
by Staff Writers
Orono ME (SPX) Apr 04, 2008
NASA faces many challenges in its quest to establish a colony on the moon by 2020, and providing suitable shelter for the next generation of space explorers is at the top of the list. An inflatable lunar habitat, one of several concepts now on the drawing boards, must be lightweight and flexible enough to minimize packaging size and transportation costs.

Once deployed, the expanded structure must provide its occupants ample living and work space as well as withstand the rigors of the moon's brutal, airless environment for weeks or months on end.

The lunar habitat will have to shield astronauts from cosmic rays and solar radiation while standing up to the impact of micrometeoroids, the volatility of moonquakes, and surface temperatures that fluctuate from 224 degrees to minus degrees 243 Fahrenheit.

The successful habitat design promises to be a marvel of engineering, a rethinking of what constitutes a structure and the methods and materials to make it, and a University of Maine researcher hopes he and his team can have a hand in reaching that goal.

Supported by NASA funds issued through the Maine Space Grant Consortium, Vince Caccese, a professor of mechanical engineering, is examining how flexible fabric-like materials used in inflatable structures wrinkle under shearing strain and how that deformation can be eliminated by making the materials rigid. The rigidifying process, he says, involves treating the materials with a chemical or resin-like material that can then be activated with some form of energy acting as a catalyst.

The UMaine team will include researchers from the departments of mechanical, electrical, civil and environmental engineering as well as graduate and undergraduate students. Researchers plan to run tests on a small inflatable structure developed by a leading aerospace contractor to see how it compares to computer models.

Ali Abedi, a UMaine electrical and computer engineering professor, has devised battery-free, wireless acceleration sensors that will be used to measure the vibration of the test structure during inflation.

Caccese, a structural engineering expert, has extensive experience in the design and analysis of aerospace and naval structures using composites and other advanced materials. He was part of a NASA team that designed an impact detection system for the leading edge of space shuttle wings. The system was used successfully on post-Columbia shuttle missions and earned a NASA award for excellence.

Using the knowledge gained from the inflatable habitat research, he says, the undergraduate students will develop Web-based educational materials that can be used in Maine's K-12 science curriculum.

"My hope is to make a small contribution to a very interesting and challenging project," says Caccese of NASA's Moon, Mars and Beyond mission, "and to have students do things that might get them interested in the space program."

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