Blog | Dec 1, 2022

Orbital Reef Workshop at MIT Addresses the Challenges of Future Space Habitats

Orbital Reef, led by principal partners, Blue Origin and Sierra Space, is designed to be the premier mixed-use space station in Low Earth Orbit. It will provide an ecosystem for commerce, research, and tourism by the end of this decade. However, there are new and often unprecedented challenges in developing new and innovative architectures for living and working in space. The Orbital Reef team is committed to gathering innovative ideas for how to make life in space as comfortable and productive as possible. From transporting and storing material within the strict weight limits imposed by space travel, to creating an enjoyable experience for those unaccustomed to life in zero gravity, the team is considering every conceivable challenge during the design and development phase, underway now. 

Recently, 55 students from the Engineering System Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) participated in a workshop hosted by experts from NASA and representatives from the Orbital Reef team including Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) to examine more closely some of those challenges. During the one-day workshop, eight groups of students were each tasked with brainstorming creative ideas for potential solutions. 

The students enthusiastically tackled challenges including how to recycle the trash in space, ensure adequate spare parts for station repairs, maintain a consistent supply of food and water, and more. With the oversight of the participating space experts, the students proposed innovative ideas based on their knowledge of space logistics. After presenting their ideas, students received ratings and feedback from the experts on their plans' viability, cost-effectiveness, and potential to address the challenge. Innovations ranged from better-optimized packing containers using origami-inspired techniques to repurposing plastic waste into cost-effective energy sources.

The winning team addressed the issue of space station trash and waste disposal using a two-prong approach. The first approach proposed combining plastic waste that has been broken down by special enzymes with captured CO2 resulting in ethanol that can be used for fuel. The second approach is to use an inflatable orbital descent vehicle for waste disposal. The descent vehicle, along with the waste contained inside, would be released from the station and burn up during atmospheric re-entry. Both of these ideas are cost-effective and address trash disposal challenges.

These students represent a new generation of space logistics experts who are using their own experiences, education, and backgrounds to solve some of the Orbital Reef space station's most pressing challenges. By bringing together some of the most forward-thinking companies and smartest young minds in the nation, the workshop proved the importance of outside viewpoints for tackling space challenges. The future of the space industry is bright, and it is never too early to tap into the innovators of tomorrow to positively impact the future of living and working beyond our planet.  

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