ANNALEE HUBBS – COPY & DIGITAL EDITOR
Ariel Ekblaw doesn’t know yet if space is the final frontier — there’s still much unknown about the universe. But she does know that at this time, space is one absolutely compelling and captivating frontier to explore … and inhabit.
Ekblaw is the director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, a research group of 10 people that serves a community of 50-plus graduate students, faculty and staff. Founded in 2016, the Initiative works on prototyping the artifacts for the future of life in space: architecture, food, health, wearables (space suits) — all things for the interior life of a future space tourist or astronaut.
Ekblaw’s research focuses on space architecture and designing habitats (closed volumes that people live in) that self-assemble in space. Her doctoral degree at MIT focused on that self-assembling space architecture, called TESSERAE, which can be thought of as Legos that snap themselves together in orbit.
Currently, the modules astronauts live in are aluminum shells that are prefabricated on the ground, like the International Space Station currently in orbit.
At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, July 8 in the Amphitheater, Ekblaw will delve into Week Two’s theme “New Frontiers: Exploring Today’s Unknowns” with a lecture on the future of space habitation and the ethical questions that arise from these processes.
“By designing space habitats that can keep humans alive in one really extreme environment, against the vacuum, in extreme temperatures in space — we learn a lot about how to help human life adapt on the surface of the earth,” Ekblaw said.
Ekblaw grew up reading a lot of science fiction. She loves books that paint an imaginary, or sometimes a very realistic, vision of what life in space is like.
Ekblaw’s parents are both Air Force pilots, and there’s a long tradition of Air Force pilots becoming astronauts. Her parents didn’t choose that path, but the importance of exploration and serving her country always lived large in Ekblaw’s childhood — in addition to her deep and profound love of space.
Ekblaw and her team are currently working on the next space flight test mission for TESSERAE (Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments). In March 2020, they prepared and deployed a 30-day experiment mission on the ISS, launching miniature tiles to space to test the self-assembling concept — they launched on SpaceX CRS-20. The test flight was successful, so now they’re working on building the first large-scale, human-sized tiles to launch.
The team tests both the self-assembly and self-disassembly of tiles. The miniature ones came together and apart on their own. Ekblaw said there’s sensing intelligence in each tile, so there is no human controlling the process — something they call a quasi-stochastic, or somewhat randomly determined, process.
“There are ways that they want to come together,” she said. “There are magnets on their edges that are drawing them together to bond on their own. Via their onboard sensing system, the tiles determine whether they did a good job — whether they came together correctly or need to try again.”
One of the aspects Ekblaw thinks is most timely for society, and why she’s interested in space, is that there are extreme environments on the surface of the earth, but that space is also an extreme environment itself. She hopes that the systems they design for life in space could be robust enough that they can learn from them and apply them to earth-based populations as well.
One technology she thinks might be transferable is “environmental control and life support systems.” The TESSERAE platform is the exo-shell, the self-assembling architecture, but this system is the engineering that would go on the inside for the environmental control.
“There’s a lot of different environmental controls they can design for the inside of space structures that might also come back down to benefit life on earth,” Ekblaw said.
Ekblaw is looking forward to sharing the best-in-class new technical ideas for making life in space a reality, and she is looking forward to asking if it sounds appealing to people. She said pretty soon “everyday people” will be wanting to go to space, not just astronauts.
“Part of our mission as designers and engineers for space is to make that an appealing future, so that more people see themselves in the future of space exploration,” Ekblaw said.
Space is a profound common environment (shared areas that require humans to have good behavior and to treat the environment well), Ekblaw said. So, there is a huge ethical question in space exploration that humanity needs to address: How can we respect the space commons and take care of it as a domain?
Space debris is just one issue Ekblaw plans to discuss in her lecture today. She said there is a lot of debris in orbit around the earth from our early spacefaring activities as a species (Apollo Era to present day) and that it’s posing a significant challenge. Space debris can be a serious danger to spacecraft orbiting in the same area as the debris, as the spacecraft can be punctured or damaged. More space debris can cause more collisions, which cause more space debris — an effect called the Kessler Syndrome.
Ekblaw thinks the “New Frontiers” theme for Week Two is an interesting topic because it’s important to share the advanced progress in space exploration and pose these ethical questions with a broader swath of people, she said.
“Earth citizens, U.S. citizens, frequenters of Chautauqua should get to have a say in the future of things that might affect their lives, and these are technologies that could come to affect millions, eventually billions of people’s lives,” she said.
Ekblaw said it’s important for people to learn about the science behind such advancements, but it’s also important for them to question it — it’s about dialogue.
The reason space fits as a new frontier right now, Ekblaw said, is because there is currently a surge of activity in the space industry, something that hasn’t been seen to this degree since the Apollo Era.
The U.S. is planning for the first woman to go to the surface of the moon (Artemis mission) and looking ahead to possible human missions to Mars; there’s also potential for commercial space habitats in low Earth orbit — not just the government-funded ISS that’s already out there, but companies having space habitats that could someday be space hotels.
“All these big developments — moon, mars and low Earth orbit — are coming in this next decade, and maybe into the 2030s for a human Mars mission, and this is a really big, literal frontier,” Ekblaw said. “It is exploring the ‘final frontier’ for humanity.”