The Well-Dressed Spacecraft: Electronic Textile Enhanced Thermal Blanket as Debris (and Cosmic Dust) Sensor

Juliana Cherston, Wei Yan, Grace Noel, Yuchen Sun, David Veysset, Steve Kooi, Syamantak Payra, Irmandy Wicaksono, Hajime Yano, Yoel Fink, and Joseph Paradiso
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA

Winner of an HP Workstation

The sustainability crisis extends to low-Earth Orbit (LEO), where human-made debris poses a ubiquitous threat. An electronic textile technology for LEO promises an opportunity for industry and technology convergence among the electronics, textile manufacturing, and space technology industries.

For decades, spacecraft and spacesuits have leveraged textile substrates as their outermost protective skins. For example, the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) is composed of Teflon-coated fiberglass (‘Beta-cloth’), which is robust to atomic oxygen erosion and designed for combined strength, durability, and flame retardation.

This new technology is augmenting these large-area space fabrics with cutting-edge multi-sensory functionality. The vibration-sensitive piezoelectric fibers and impact plasma charge-sensing conductive pile-fabric are manufactured via fiber thermal draw towers and industrial-scale looms.

The team posed some ambitious and diverse questions enabled by this skin: Can this sensor-enhanced skin localize damage on future space habitats induced by the tens-of-thousands of pieces of manmade orbital space debris and micrometeoroids too small to be tracked by radar? Can the fabric on spacecraft walls double as an enormous detector of interstellar dust, tiny messengers from cataclysmic events of scientific intrigue traveling at tens-to-hundreds of kilometers-per-second and originating hundreds of light-years away? And, what if astronauts could feel touch and texture right through their pressurized spacesuits? In each case, vibration sensitive fabric could serve as one foundational technology.

An array of the space fabric completed one year of unpowered material resiliency testing on the outer walls of the ISS. The project was also awarded a major grant by the ISS US National Laboratory based on its potential for technology and industry convergence. This grant will fund a six-month electrically powered in-space test this year, which will provide crucial data for realizing this technology.

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Honorable Mentions

Eternium Long Range Multi-Role Fuel Cell Electric Aircraft and Fuel System

Jared Semik, Eternium Aerospace, Novato, CA

This long-range electric aircraft and fuel system consists of several patent-pending and novel engineering advances that make long-range (3200nm) electric flight possible. The aircraft is a modular multi-role platform serving in passenger, semi-autonomous wildfire suppression, autonomous cargo and ISR roles.

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Vision-Based High-Speed Autonomous Drone Navigation

Antonio Loquercio, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

A drone navigation system uses AI to fly a quadrotor through previously unseen environments such as forests, buildings, ruins, and trains, achieving speeds of up to 40 km/h and without crashing into trees, walls, or other obstacles. While humans require years to train, the AI, leveraging high-performance simulators, can reach comparable navigation abilities much faster, basically overnight.

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Multi-Ducted Angled Rotor System

Liza Pierce, Stuart Dana, and Thomas Johnson, SpyDar Inc., Fairfax, VA

The Multi-Ducted Angled Rotor (M-DAR) solves stall and high momentum drag of traditional planar (90 degree) ducted fans in forward flight by lowering the angle at which the air flows into the duct. The M-DAR itself is comprised of fixed forward pitched ducted fans set at a 45-degree angle. This allows it to function at higher transition speeds to enable efficient wing borne flight.

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Bio-Inspired Lightweight and Energy-Efficient Planetary Drill and Sample

Mohamed Alkalla, Mansoura University, Mansoura, Egypt

The system combines both reciprocation motion bio-inspired by the wood wasp ovipositor and a new undulatory/oscillation motion bioinspired by the caudal fins of marine creatures, as well as the sandfish lizard that uses an undulatory body motion to bury itself and hide in the sand. Including this motion will significantly enhance the performance of the dual reciprocating drill, resulting in the design of the novel dual reciprocation oscillation drill (DROD).

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This article first appeared in the November, 2022 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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