Antenna and telescope mirrors, walls and partitions for space stations, solar battery panels and even houses on the Moon and on Mars – all this can be achieved with technology developed by Russian scientists in the framework of ISTC projects 2835 and 2836. What is more, it can be achieved quickly, with good levels of strength and reliability, with minimal expense of time, space, energy and money.
These construction materials or, to be more accurate, original semi-products for future structures, are brought into space in compact, hermetically-sealed containers. The half-finished product is connected to a compressed gas cylinder and inflated on site. In just a few hours the soft, moist fabric becomes a rigid, strong material in the form of a table, partition or antenna.
Using these pneumatic setting structures in space is the idea of specialists from the Babakin Scientific Research Center and NPO Lavochkin. And they propose that modules of space stations be built from these light yet sturdy materials, initially for orbital stations, but in future moving to lunar and Martian examples. Of course we are not talking about covering panels for spacecraft or roofs for houses, but of internal partitions, walls, and three-dimensional structures such as solar battery panels, antennae and telescope mirrors.
One of the greatest problems of construction in space, whatever is being built, is the supply of materials and structural details. Entire cumbersome designs simply do not fit into a spacecraft, which means they have to be carried in parts and then assembled in orbit. And this is incredibly difficult, especially for designs that require a particularly precise assembly. Primarily this applies to parabolic antennae and telescope mirrors; their diameter is measured in tens of meters and any distortion in their surface could lead to errors, sometimes of an irreparable nature.
“In essence our technology is simple,” say the developers. “We form the future product from a special fabric, light and strong; what is important is that we do it all on Earth. We give it the required form, in a process that is strictly controlled. We place inside the structure something akin to a rubber inner bladder, such as you would find inside a football. Then we impregnate the material with a special solution. The semi-product for a future antenna is now ready. Now all that is needed is to pack it up, seal it hermetically, send it to its destination and then inflate it.”
The essence lies in the fact that, when it dries the solution sets, turning the material it has impregnated into a strong, rigid, non-combustible shell. In space, in an airless environment, the water will vanish by itself, without the need for additional assistance. And the compressed gas will fulfill a double task: it will unfurl the product and give it its shape. So there is no need for additional expense on energy to inflate the structure or to fix its shape.
These pneumatic setting structures have not been in space yet. The scientists are optimizing the composition of the solution, selecting the best materials for the base and specifying the details of the technology with greater precision. But it is clear even today that in terms of strength the new materials are no worse than traditional ones, while they are several times lighter.