Most of us think of space as the great big void; but as humanity is increasingly looking towards the stars, life beyond Earth may well be a possibility in the future. And if there’s anything we learned on earth, it’s that sustainability is the key to survival and longevity. With that in mind, The SIT Hackathon 2022: Sustainability in Space gathered some bright young minds to create solutions based on “How to Live in Space for 365 Days.”
Jointly organised by The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), Science Centre Singapore, and NEO Aeronautics Pte Ltd, the challenge ran from January to June 2022. Six teams of SIT students were given a budget of $500 to work on their prototypes.
From there, four teams progressed to the Grand Final on 8 June and presented to the judges. Among the judges was the Guest-of-Honour, NASA Astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams, who currently holds the record for the longest time spent in space by an American male astronaut. He also shared insights into space missions and his life as an astronaut at the event held at SIT@Dover.
Most teams proposed ideas to repurpose plastics and debris in space in order to reduce the carbon emission with each rocket launch (it can be in excess of US$10,000 per pound to launch into space!). Team REPA emerged victorious, and together with 1st and 2nd runners-up Team AMICA and Team Legstronk, they walked away with cash prizes of $500.
Winning Team: Team REPA
With the aim to reduce plastic waste on the International Space Station (ISS), Team REPA impressed the judges with their idea to recycle the packaging plastic sent to the ISS every 90 days.
Team REPA created a plastic shredder, an extruder, and a 3D printer. The idea is to put the plastic waste through the shredder, which will then be heated up with the extruder to be made into 3D printer filaments. The aim is to 3D print essential handheld items to support astronauts on the ISS.
Team leader Louis Tan Lek An shared that NASA Astronaut Jeffrey really liked the idea, as there is a considerable amount of plastic waste on the ISS that could be repurposed into useful items. This also helps free up storage on the ISS, and reduce the number of shipments from Earth.
Team REPA consists of Louis Tan Lek An, Bryce Yeo Jen Yong, and Wesley Heng Hoong Yeow from SIT-University of Glasgow’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering degree programme.
1st Runner-Up: Team AMICA
With the decommissioning of the ISS, Team AMICA proposed to re-establish a space station through 3D printing. This moves the manufacturing and assembly of it to space with their Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Capsule (AMICA).
AMICA consists of a built-in 3D printing system, a control room for astronauts, a furnace for metal work and remote-controlled external robotic arms to assemble the modules outside the capsule.
The raw materials for printing would be shipped to the capsule to be printed on-site. This would reduce the number of shipments sent to space. 3D printing technology is already being used to produce everything from concrete to satellites. Team AMICA plans to 3D print metal by mixing metal powder with binder agents to produce filament, using the additive manufacturing approach. Additive manufacturing builds objects layer by layer, based on a digital 3D-designed model. It uses a range of materials such as plastic, metals, ceramic, and silica sand.
The team also proposed a possible attachment to AMICA: a device to collect orbital debris to be broken down into filaments for 3D printing.
Team AMICA consists of Fermi Toh Zheng Jie, Lim Puay Keat, Lee Xiang Wei, Axal Ang Yong Sheng, and Gan Li Cin. All are second-year students of the Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering (Land) Degree programme.
2nd Runner Up: Team Legstronk
Also aiming to recycle wasted space debris is Team Legstronk. Their proposal is to mix cement with repurposed space debris to 3D print and build space structures.
In coming up with a device to collect space debris, they took inspiration from the concept of a robo vacuum. Since a vacuum doesn’t work in space, the team thought of alternatives, such as a device to sweep up orbital debris.
The team’s biggest concern is coming up with a replica of the space materials to test the viability of repurposing them. The process would require a huge outlay, both to conduct the experiments and create the prototype and composition of cement with materials found in space.
Team Legstronk aims to make production and building in space more sustainable by repurposing the valuable waste that is already present in orbit.
Team Legstronk consists of Sim Xuan Le, Darryl Chan Jun Hao, and Goh Kuok How. All are third-year students of the Aircraft Systems Engineering degree programme.
Consolation Prize: Team SCV
Dead satellites that orbit the earth could potentially cause danger to future space activities. So Team SCV prototyped a Space Construction Vehicle (SCV) to repurpose these space wastes into 3D printing filament.
The SCV includes two arms – one to collect defunct satellites and another to process the debris for melting – and the 3D filament-making process. This vehicle would be fully automated, so the use of artificial intelligence (AI) is central to the SCV. This is to help it calculate and predict the position of the satellites for collection. However, team lead, Du Yufei, shared that providing power for the vehicle is tricky, although solar panels could be used.
This innovation would help improve efficiency and the cost to build modules of the space station. In addition, it also reduces the dangers of working in space.
The team consists of Du Yufei, Muhammad Nur Aslam Bin Sanosi, Clarence Hoon Tien Yu, Phatchararuangkij Natsinee, and Lucas Lim Yong Keat. All are second-year students of the Mechatronics Systems degree programme.
Future of sustainability in space
What would the future be like for humans in space? In addition to the hurdles of getting up there in the first place, questions like how we can make the process more sustainable is a hot debate within the space industry and requires solving some of the biggest engineering challenges in history. The ideas proposed by the hackathon participants bring us one step closer to a future where humanity has a home beyond the void.