Travelling among the stars

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong was the first man to step foot on the moon. Humans will inhabit other star systems, predicts Dr Angelo Vermeulen.

Dr Angelo Vermeulen: “We are looking at how a spaceship develops under different conditions." (Photo: Sam Rentmeester. Background photo: Eas2018, animation Joris Putteneers)

An asteroid is floating through an immense void. On the surface, we can see a few flashing lights as well as round and hexagonal shapes. In the film that Angelo Vermeulen is showing us, we start to see more and more of these structures. A patchwork of connected modules soon encompasses the entire rock, making the giant object look more like a spaceship than an asteroid.

Vermeulen, leader of the TU Delft Starship Team (DSTART) research group, predicts that this type of hybrid colossus will take mankind into space.Science fiction? ESA is taking his research seriously.

Life on planets and spaceships
“In the future, we will live in different constellations in the universe. Not only on planets, but also in spaceships and in space stations scattered throughout various star systems. This is the deep future.”

For his PhD research, Vermeulen is investigating interstellar exploration at the multi-actor systems department of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM). He already has a PhD in developmental biology and is not only a researcher but also an artist. He is co-founder of the collective SEAD (Space Ecologies Art and Design), which works on technology-based art projects. With a background like that, Vermeulen is not afraid to leave the beaten track.

“We know little about interstellar space, about the different kinds of particles you can expect there and the types of radiation. For engineers, that’s quite a challenge. How can you design a system for a future that you can’t properly envisage? Our idea is to build a spaceship that continuously adapts.”

‘Don’t start talking to me about something as superficial as Star Wars

In the current design, such a spaceship consists of an asteroid that expands with modules. The rock will provide humans with raw materials. A crucial factor here is the 3D printer to convert mined raw materials into new building components. Boosters can steer the asteroid’s trajectory. And so mankind will travel deeper and deeper into space, generation after generation. The system must be completely closed. Everything must be recycled.

Technologically substantiated
Science fiction. Vermeulen is the first to mention this word during our conversation. Yes, he gets that term thrown at him quite a bit – but it doesn’t bother him. “I am a huge fan. But it does have to be hard science fiction, which is technologically substantiated. Don’t start talking to me about something as superficial as Star Wars.”

And he is being taken seriously – which is borne out by the fact that he was invited to speak at an ESA conference on interstellar space travel, which was held at ESTEC in Noordwijk last June. In October, he will also be presenting four articles on his research projects at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington DC.

But let’s take a step back. Why should we leave our solar system in the first place? “For me, that’s a logical next step when you look at human history. We’ve only had powered flight for a century or so. In the blink of an eye, we have built up emotional and psychological comfort in the atmosphere. And we are also seeing the development of space tourism. We are constantly expanding the human environment.”

Adapting on the fly
Interstellar exploration is a totally different ball game compared to space travel as we know it today. Supplies can’t be replenished from Earth. A gradual exploration, as in the case of the moon landing 50 years ago, is also not an option. It wasn’t until the 11th Apollo mission that man set foot on the moon. All those previous missions served to optimise the system.

On a generation star ship, people have to adapt the spaceship with time. How? That’s what Vermeulen is investigating with computer simulations.

“We are looking at how a spaceship develops under different conditions. We are assuming, for example, that a journey will last a hundred years. We take an asteroid with a specific chemical composition as a basis and map out a route through an environment with certain particle densities and radiation that can cause damage. We then determine how long it takes the ship to mine enough aluminium to create a new shield that can withstand unexpected radiation levels. Will the ship make it to the finish line, or will things go pear-shaped halfway through? And what would have happened if the circumstances along the way had been different?”

Modelling an ecosystem
“We are also modelling the on-board ecosystem. Astronauts need a certain amount of food every day. They produce waste that is broken down by bacteria and converted into crops that in turn provide calories and oxygen.”

Vermeulen and his colleagues are using different types of models. “We simulate biology through agent-based modelling. To extract raw materials and to print parts, we will use discrete event simulations, we will capture the impact of the interstellar medium with systems dynamics and we will use evolutionary algorithms for the evolutionary aspects. We are trying to combine these four techniques in one model. It’s quite a daunting task.”

More research on surviving in space

Living cells
How do living cells react to weightlessness and radiation in space? Dr Ralph Lindeboom (CEG) is investigating that very question. A few years ago, he sent bacteria that could break down urine into space with a Russian mission. The micro-organisms orbited the earth for one and a half months. Upon their return, they were just as alive as before. The study revealed significant findings. According to Lindeboom, the bacteria he studied could be used to recycle water during missions into the remote universe.

Extra-terrestrial structures
If we’re going to live on another planet or an asteroid, we really need robots that print 3D structures. Software company Dassault has invited the Robotic Building (Architecture) research group, led by Dr Henriette Bier, to participate in a design competition in this area. Bier supervises a group of twelve students who will spend a year studying the best structures to create on Mars, using the raw materials that are available locally and 3D printers. In the summer of 2020, when participants present their designs in Paris, we’ll know what these buildings look like.

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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