SOM and the University of Manchester envision the space habitat of the future

Calling All Carbon

SOM and the University of Manchester envision the space habitat of the future

SOM is contributing design and manufacturing research towards a new type of modular space station that will use graphene composites as a structural material. Seen here in low Earth orbit, the capsules can be configured for living quarters. (Courtesy SOM and Luxigon)

How will we live in space?” is a question that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has already broached through its work for the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Moon Village. Now, the architecture and planning giant is turning its attention to more orbital heights by teaming with the University of Manchester and the school’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre to investigate graphene’s potential to build the next generation of space habitats.

Graphene is often touted as a miracle material; created in single-atom-thick sheets of carbon arranged in a structurally rigid lattice, the material is highly conductive of both heat and electricity, extremely resistant to physical and chemical stressors, can be used to create transparent surfaces, possess anti-corrosive properties, and more. Stronger than steel and lighter than carbon fiber, graphene is still expensive to “grow” and arrange into multilayered sheets, limiting its practical applications at the time of writing. Graphene was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004.

View from inside a space station towards earth
Inside the viewing deck of the graphene space station. (Courtesy SOM and Luxigon)

Banking on projections from Morgan Stanley that the space industry will be worth $1 trillion by 2040, the University of Manchester team is pressing forward with plans to create a scale prototype of a space station that employs graphene in its structural components. The station, made up of a series of pressurized capsules, will be lighter than comparable space habitats thanks to the graphene employed in the radiation shielding. SOM will be researching both the design and manufacturing of the prototype station.

Rocketing materials into space is a complicated endeavor that can become prohibitively expensive as weight increases, and shipping complicated structures runs the risk of damage (and in the case of modular space stations, warrants multiple trips). In addition to the habitat itself, the team will also research new methods of zero-gravity robotic fabrication that employ graphene composites to allow for future space stations to be built in orbit. As attention turns to longer term orbital and off-world occupation and industry, the ESA, NASA, and private companies are banking on in-situ fabrication to keep costs down.

A graphene wrapped space station in earth orbit
With the protective radiation shielding panels in place. (Courtesy SOM and Luxigon)
A space station in orbit around earth with viewing panels open
With the panels partially open, allowing astronauts in the viewing deck views of the outside cosmos. (Courtesy SOM and Luxigon)

“Designing for habitation in space poses some of the greatest challenges,” said Daniel Inocente, a senior designer at SOM’s New York office, in a press release, “it means creating an environment capable of maintaining life and integrating crew support systems.”

“Conducting research using graphene allows us to test lightweight materials and design processes that could improve the efficacy of composite structures for potential applications on Earth and future use in space,” he added.