Aerospace Investigates Building Blocks in Space

Hive units could assemble into different configurations in space. (Illustration: Joseph Hidalgo)

Imagine a swarm of small satellite units that can form structures in space and reconfigure themselves for new tasks.

A broad team of technical experts at The Aerospace Corporation is investigating this idea, called Hive, and determining if it’s technically feasible.

“This forward-looking technology could enable all kinds of missions with its adaptability, upgradeability, and large physical size,” said team lead Dr. Henry Helvajian.

The building block of Hive is a smart, mass-producible, small satellite unit that could interlock with other units and pass power, data, and heat. Each unit could rotate a face while attached to other units, as well as detach and climb over other units.

The goal is to make units that are standardized, interchangeable, and able to reconfigure themselves. As Helvajian put it, a Hive unit “rolls, hops, and can be swapped.”

Applications

Hive sparks the imagination and all kinds of interesting possibilities come to mind. One huge advantage of Hive compared to a traditional satellite is that Hive could change its configuration to perform different missions.

For example, Hive could be used as a large, reconfigurable optical telescope. By moving Hive units, the shape of the telescope mirror could change.

This adaptability is especially valuable for long-term missions where requirements and technology may change over time.

“Hive units could go to Mars,” Helvajian said. “In space they serve certain functions, and then on the ground they turn into a building.”

Hive units could also build very large structures in space, structures that are too large to fit on a launch vehicle.

Space debris is becoming more of an issue, but Hive would not be a sitting target. The Hive units could disperse in the event of a threat, and then reassemble when the threat had passed. Repairs and upgrades would also be easier because malfunctioning or older Hive cells could be individually replaced.

Variants of Hive units. (Illustration: Joseph Hidalgo)

Feasibility

The idea is great, but the obvious question is how realistic this concept is. At this point, Hive is an idea, not a reality, but Helvajian emphasizes that there is a solid engineering backbone.

“I didn’t want this to be an exercise in viewchart engineering,” Helvajian said. “What stands behind this are 30 subject matter experts, and the feasibility study stands on reasonable engineering foundations.”

Indeed, Helvajian has assembled a broad team of technical specialists in areas such as distributed software, timing and networks, thermal, attitude control, mechanisms, and more to investigate the viability of Hive.

They are considering new approaches to deployable structures, looking at mechanical and thermal interfaces that enable dynamic configurability, and just generally hammering away at the multitude of engineering challenges that inevitably come up with an idea like this.

The team is definitely thinking outside the box … and also outside the cube. Instead of making the Hive units out of CubeSats, they have considered making the Hive units a circular shape with nested rings, which might provide some advantages.

“In trying to figure out the best form factor to allow us to efficiently package and assemble the Hive units, we drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including the slinky, origami, molecular chemistry, and IKEA,” Helvajian said.

This team of creative engineers is continuing to investigate and consider different options, and they are excited to consider what could be possible.

“Hive is just a forerunner to the changes anticipated as space architecture evolves,” Helvajian said. “What could YOU do with an assembly of 10,000 programmable units in space?”

—Laura Johnson