ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering unveiled impressive new technology being developed with NASA during a public on-campus tour and reception on Friday.
A representative from NASA was on hand to showcase the mock-up of a lunar habitat that was built on the UMaine campus last fall. The inflatable, 42-foot-by-10-foot structure — which when developed is expected to one day house up to 15 astronauts on the surface of the moon or even Mars — is undergoing multiple phases of research and development at UMaine.
Other lunar habitats have been constructed for testing since the early 1990s, many by private U.S. companies, but none has ever been deployed. The research UM is conducting will enable the lunar module to be used at the International Space Station within the next 10 years, according to Mauricio Pereira da Cunha, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMaine.
“The concept of a lunar habitat has been around for some time, but we are improving it — making it a reality,” he said. “Things like the volume of the structure, technology that will monitor its exterior once it’s on the surface, and other things that will help it function properly once it’s deployed are being worked on.”
Friday’s event was meant to give the public an idea of how the structure will help humans better understand the environments of other planets. When the habitat is ready to be used on a space mission, it will be tightly packaged into a box-like structure and loaded onto a departing spacecraft. The structure will travel with astronauts to their destination and can be either jettisoned to a planet’s surface, where it will automatically inflate, or brought down with the astronauts to be set up by hand.
The material used to make the lunar habitat mock-up at UM resembles a nylon tarp, and the structure is similar to what the final product will look like.
But the habitat itself is not the primary concern of researchers at UM. Instead, they are focusing on what is called “wireless sensor technology.” When the habitat is deployed, sensors will be attached to its exterior and hooked up to computers inside, monitoring everything from air pressure and temperature to debris collisions and humidity. This way, if there is a leak in the structure or damage to its outer walls, astronauts can pinpoint the problem and fix it quickly, all on the planet’s surface.
“Humans are first at NASA, and we’ve envisioned this technology for a while now. The work being done at UM will help to protect the astronauts and make their lives a lot easier,” said George Studor, an assistant to the chief technologist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where all plans and preparations are made for human space flight.
Studor has long worked to make the lunar habitat technology a reality. UM became involved after he was approached in 2007 by Ali Abedi, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He had an idea to make the habitat safer and more functional. Studor said that rather than develop the technology in Houston at the Johnson Space Center, he decided it was a better idea to allow a university to make the improvements.
“We ran out of space, and there could be more researchers working on the project with all the professors and students at UM,” said Studor. “They had some trouble finding space here, but they’ve done it and they’ve done a great job thus far.”
Abedi was able to obtain $2.2 million in grant funds from the Maine Technology Institute, and after arrangements were made with Studor, NASA contributed another $2 million to fund the work being done at UM. The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and the University of Southern Maine in Portland also have contributed financing.
Although the habitat is a work in progress, Abedi said it could be included in NASA missions to the moon and to planets by 2030. Other researchers and officials involved in the project said the module is designed to accommodate any new technologies that come along.
“Together with UM, we [at NASA] are sharing the dream of one day giving an inflatable home to our astronauts,” Studor said. “We are so proud of this work, but more impressive than anything else — this is just the beginning.”