Manchester to build an interplanetary future through innovation in advanced materials and robots

Pioneering scientists and engineers from The University of Manchester are looking to build a future in space through innovation in advanced materials and autonomous systems - including revolutionary concepts in space habitats and the trustworthy robots to help build them.

In the UK, the space sector is worth over 16.4 billion per year and employs more than 45,000 people, while satellites and space tech underpins 360 billion per year of wider economic activity. Globally, projections reveal that the space economy could grow to $1 trillion revenue by 2040.

To optimise opportunities in this booming market, organisations such as the European Space Agency are looking to build space habitats, including a permanent station on the Moon and ultimately lunar villages. However, these types of ambitious projects will require breakthroughs in new materials to help construct resilient structures and infrastructure.

In response to this challenge, an R@D team led by Dr Vivek Koncherry - based at the University’s own innovation accelerator, the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) - is looking to build pressurised vessels that will create a modular space station for Low Earth Orbit. These pioneering vessels are to be made from graphene-enhanced carbon fibre as the addition of this 2D material will lightweight the habitat, as well as lending its thermal management properties to help regulate extremes of temperature.

Dr Koncherrry has been working closely with global architects SOM, who have been studying the complexity of space habitation for many years as they look to design for an interplanetary future.

As space explorers of the future look to go beyond the Earth’s orbit, travelling from a graphene space ship to begin building bases on the Moon - or even Mars - Dr Koncherry’s colleague Dr Aled Roberts , also part of the GEIC, is conducting research to develop bio-based building materials.

Dr Roberts, who is also part of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology , explains that one of the biggest challenges for "off-world habitat construction" is the transportation of building materials, which can cost upwards of 1m ’per brick’. Until the conceptual ’graphene space elevator’ can be built, one solution, says Dr Roberts, could be using local resources, such as lunar or Martian soil to make building materials. This thinking has led to proposed products like AstroCrete (aka extraterrestrial regolith biocomposites), a material using the local planetary soil and a bio-based binder to make sturdy bricks to build space habitats.

To support this lunar or Martian construction work, artificial intelligence (AI) researchers at Manchester - who are expert in developing autonomous systems and resilient AI-powered robots - have helped develop sophisticated software to enable ’co-bots’ to aid astronauts in exploration, in construction and in monitoring these new structures.

This work has been led by Professor Michael Fisher and his colleagues that form the Robotics and AI Centre at the University. A specialism at Manchester involves designing and building AI-powered autonomous robots that can work in the harshest of environment, such as space, and can reliably undertake a wide range of tasks "on their own".

Previous research in this field has looked to support improved capability of NASA’s Astronaut-Rover teams and the Manchester team continue their collaboration with NASA. Future manned missions to the Moon and Mars are expected to use autonomous rovers and robots to assist astronauts during extravehicular activity (EVA), including science, technical and construction operations.

"An important feature of the Manchester work is to develop and apply systems making sure these robots are trustworthy and do what we expect," explained Professor Fisher.

Once a space habitat has been built, its human occupants will need to survive in their new environment - and NASA researchers have identified hydroponics as a suitable method for growing food in outer space. Manchester agri-tech experts are looking at the future of food production, which includes the application of hydroponics in vertical farming production.

Dr Beenish Siddique , founder of AEH Innovative Hydrogel (below) , a UK government-backed enterprise which is also based in the GEIC, is leading a team to develop a pioneering a hydrogel called GelPonics.

This growth medium conserves water and filters out pathogens to protect plants from disease, while automated technology includes the use of a graphene-based sensor that allows remote monitoring and management of the irrigation management system. This process is much less labour intensive and ultimately the GelPonics system is designed to be used in the harshest of environments.

Combining two strengths - advanced materials and trustworthy automation - to create a USP for space

Space is a fast-growing opportunity for exponential market growth - and provides an arena for the UK engineering sector to apply its world-leading expertise. The R&D being pioneered by experts at The University of Manchester to deliver revolutionary innovation in space habitat technology provides a model approach.

Manchester has combined two of its key engineering strengths - advanced materials and autonomous systems - to find a unique proposition on space tech innovation.

Dr Vivek Koncherry says: "If you want to implement nanomaterials - or indeed the next generation of advanced materials - into space application you will also need automation.

"In Manchester, everything comes together - you have expertise in both advanced materials and automated systems. The skilled people we need to work with are based in the same place, which creates a unique proposition."

Dr Koncherry has built a pilot digital manufacturing line, designed to handle materials of the future by integrating robotics, AI and IoT systems in his state-of-the-art Alchemy Lab based in the GEIC (above). He has an ambition to grow the manufacturing base in Greater Manchester and from this provide a model to underpin the UK’s national capability to making advanced products.

"Dr Koncherry adds: "Space is at the tipping point of being accessible to the commercial mainstream - the opportunities this provides are boundless. Just like in the original industrial revolution, Manchester now finds itself with the right innovation at the right time to capitalise on the space revolution."

To find out more about The University of Manchester’s contribution to the space sector read: On Space