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Building structures in space using force fields

By K. Santhosh



Narayanan M. Komerath

THRISSUR, DEC. 11. Ask him what he does, and he would jest, "I am building castles in the air. Literally!''

The research being conducted by Narayanan M. Komerath, who hails from Thrissur, and his team at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the U.S. aims at formulating the technology needed to build massive radiation-shielded structures in space.

"If things go well, we can even develop the technology to have a small village in space,'' Prof. Komerath told The Hindu during a visit to his ancestral home at Peringavu here.

Funding

His team recently won funding from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts for the second phase of the research. The project is based on the concept, Tailored Force Field (TFF).

"In the system envisaged, a set of solar-powered long-wave radio transmitter-antennae will form a resonator in space. Rubble quarried from near-earth objects enclosed by the resonator will be shaped into containers. These containers will have walls thick enough to shield the interior from harmful space radiation and strong enough to serve 1-G space station modules,'' he explains.

He says that large thin-film solar collectors will be used as sails to transport the components from low Earth Orbit to the Earth-Sun Lagrange point L4 in a sample mission.

"Beamed microwave power converted from the collectors/solar cell arrays will power robotic `rock-breakers' that use plasma jet cutting tools. A sample space station will use five cylindrical modules, four 1-G modules attached with tubular spokes to the microgravity hub,'' Prof. Komerath explains.

Future space economy

He sees such station modules as building blocks for future space economy, enabling human beings to live and travel for long in radiation-shielded 1-G environment.

The TFF process addresses the problem of shipping massive radiation shields from earth. Extra-terrestrial material is used instead. As it employs an automated system with robotic support, the TFF process also solves the problem of using human labour to build space stations.

How much would a space station built by the TFF process cost? "Much less than what has been spent on the present international space station,'' he says.

An alumnus of IIT, Chennai, Prof. Komerath has taught over 1,700 aerospace engineering students, guided 15 doctoral programmes, won three U.S. patents and published over 200 papers on problems in propulsion and combustion, fluid dynamics, space concepts, diagnostic techniques and aerodynamics of rotorcraft.

He is a fellow of the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He spent the summer of 2004 as an A. D. Welliver Faculty Fellow at the Boeing Company.

Testifying as an expert witness before the Presidential Commission for the Future of the U.S. Space Program this March, Prof. Komerath had argued for "coherent international collaboration with a commitment to building large infrastructure in space.''

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