The Young Structural Engineers International Design Competition sought designs for a space station to orbit Mars. James Atkinson, a member of the winning team, discusses his team’s entry and what it means to have won.​

We’re a team of graduate structural engineers at Atkins. Together we’ve worked on a wide range of projects, from major infrastructure schemes like Crossrail to much smaller refurbishment jobs. 

We entered the Young Structural Engineers International Design Competition mainly because of the interesting space station theme to the challenge - the competition offered a chance to develop some new skills by taking some of the concepts we use in our day-job and applying them in a new environment. It was great to break out of the focussed delivery pressures of our projects and develop some of our own ideas!

The project brief required us to develop a modular/staged design for a space station that could develop its own gravity. The latter was probably the key constraint as to generate “gravity” required a spinning mechanism which, when investigated, put significant constraints on the design (spin radius, speed etc). It required us to build in a 150m disc as the starting point of our design.

There were many other issues that we’d not previously encountered. Often they were comparable to issues in terrestrial design, but it’s rare to have a project with so many. For example, the disk radius had a significant impact on the stiffness of the structure. Conventional beams or even trusses would be so flexible over that length that we found them to be unsuitable. Instead we designed each element to be able to move independently and tied everything together with cables. Additionally, thermal ranges were so substantial (ranges of 100+ deg) that conventional design would have been unable to accommodate the resulting movement. It is also pretty unusual to design a building to dodge flying debris!  

Our design was significantly based on existing technology and we were focussed on developing these concepts to achieve an extreme outcome. We were really keen that the design should be technologically feasible (even if not commercially), relying on existing launch systems and materials. We made the design as cost-efficient as possible by standardising components and systems where we could.

The key feature of our design was deployability; all of our modules were designed to collapse and pack within the payload of a Falcon Heavy rocket and then deploy in-situ. This meant that there was almost no work required to construct or dis-assemble, reducing a lot of the complexity and risks. 

Structurally there are two key elements: a central (zero-g) hub that hosts a lot of the equipment and plant, orbited by the “accommodation” modules, a series of standardised independent units. These are all launched independently and once in position, are tethered together and spun up to generate the required gravity. The space between the units is then filled with solar panels and radiators to maintain the station. 

We think we won because the judges appreciated how closely we adhered to the brief. The request was for a design that could accommodate ten permanent residents and could be expanded as required. Many other designs required a full station to be complete before it was functional, whereas we focussed heavily on making it useable right from the beginning. We also put a lot of work into parametrics and form-finding to create a design that could collapse and deploy. Ultimately, I think that the level of follow-through on our concepts was well received. 

View winning and commended concepts from the Design Competition.

The International Design Competition is organised by the Institution’s Educational Trust. Explore the Institution’s education pages

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