Aerospace & Defence

Termin-spiration: termites inspire lunar mounds in space

22nd February 2024
Sheryl Miles

In the quest for human expansion into space, the University of Arizona's College of Engineering is pioneering an approach that draws inspiration from one of nature's most impressive architects: termites.

Under the leadership of Associate Professor Jekan Thanga, a team of student researchers is developing shelters for astronauts that could be deployed on the moon, leveraging the unique construction principles of termite mounds. This initiative is a part of NASA's Artemis programme, which aims to return Americans to the moon and establish a lunar base by the decade's end.

The idea

The idea behind this innovative project can be traced back to the intriguing construction methods of cathedral termite mounds, known for their resilience and ability to regulate internal environments in extreme desert conditions.

Using these natural structures as inspiration, the development of smart, robot-built sandbag shelters designed to offer similar protection against the harsh lunar environment was born.

With NASA's financial backing, the University of Arizona engineers are utilising robot networks to create these termite-inspired structures, incorporating sensors that facilitate construction and monitor environmental changes, thereby ensuring the safety and well-being of astronauts.

Technological synergy

A pivotal aspect of this project is the distributed computer processing networks that enable the interconnectedness of the lunar structures and the robots tasked with their assembly.

Tech Launch Arizona, the commercialisation arm of the university, has collaborated with Thanga to file patents for these technological advancements. This effort underscores the project's emphasis on innovation and the strategic protection of intellectual property that could revolutionise lunar habitats.

The project's success is buoyed by a consortium known as LUNAR-BRIC, comprising the University of Arizona team, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, and MDA, a space robotics company. This collaboration highlights the importance of combining academic research, commercial expertise, and government resources to tackle the formidable challenges of space habitation, and it reflects the need of diverse expertise to create viable solutions for lunar living.

The role of insect architecture

The architectural principles of termite mounds have not only inspired the structural design of the lunar shelters but also informed the choice of materials – with the project exploring the use of sandbags filled with regolith – a mixture of soil and mineral fragments found on the moon's surface – as a sustainable alternative to traditional building materials.

This approach addresses the logistical challenges of transporting construction materials from Earth to the moon, offering a pragmatic solution that leverages in-situ resources.

Building a space economy

Beyond the immediate goal of providing safe shelters for astronauts, the project aims to lay the groundwork for a space economy that encompasses long-term habitation and responsible lunar and asteroid mining.

The development of semi-permanent and eventually permanent structures on the moon is a critical step towards establishing a human presence in space, with the termite-inspired shelters serving as a model for sustainable and efficient construction.

An integral component of this project is its focus on inclusivity and education. Funded through NASA's M-STAR and MIRO programmes, the initiative seeks to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in aerospace, offering student-centric research opportunities that emphasise hands-on experience. This educational aspect ensures that the project not only advances lunar habitation technology but also nurtures the next generation of aerospace engineers and scientists.

The University of Arizona's exploration of termite mound architecture as a template for lunar habitats represents a significant advance in the field of space habitation. By marrying the principles of natural construction with cutting-edge robotics and sensor technology, the project opens new avenues for sustainable living on the moon.

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