NASA engineers have come up with a highly creative solution to improving the functionality and durability of materials used in space. It's called "space fabric," and it's not only fashionable but also extremely versatile — soon to be an interstellar must-have.
Shielding spacecraft from the harshness of deep space and protecting astronauts in their exploratory missions on alien planets has just gotten a lot easier thanks to this flexible and ingenious fabric.
The new material, essentially a woven metal fabric with an advanced design, is cost-effective, easily foldable, and able to change shape — and it all lies in the secret of its engineering.
What Makes 'Space Fabric' So Special
The metallic "space fabric" combines engineering with fashion design and has the potential to revolutionize the future development of astronaut spacesuits and equipment.
Created by Raul Polit Casillas, a systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the novel material resembles the structure of chain mail.
The fabric is strung together from a series of articulated silver tiles. However, instead of being designed separately and then welded together, like in the case of chain mail rings, these metallic tiles are 3D printed in "whole cloth" through an advanced technology.
This method is known as additive manufacturing and substantially cuts production costs. Because the technique builds up the 3D-printed object by depositing the material in layers, it allows scientists to be innovative and produce unique new materials.
The biggest advantage of additive manufacturing is that the function of the newly printed fabric can be incorporated in the design.
"We call it '4-D printing' because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials," said Polit Casillas in an article featuring his new creation on the NASA website.
Additive Manufacturing: 3D Printing In Style
According to Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta, from the JPL office funding the research for new technologies, including the "space fabric," the possibility of adding multiple functions to a material during different stages in its development yields two major benefits.
The first more practical one is reducing production costs through 3D printing. The second one relates to the creative part of the process, namely enabling engineers to expand the designs and produce new concepts to suit equipment needs.
"We are just scratching the surface of what's possible," noted Shapiro-Scharlotta.
"The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs," he added.
Polit Casillas, the inventor of the "space fabric," explains that the additive manufacturing technology allows the programming of new functions into the material as it is being 3D printed.
As he points out, this cuts the amount of time spent on integration and testing, since engineers can print, test, and destroy the material as many times as necessary.
Creative Uses For The 3D-Printed Metal Fabric
The "space fabric" has four essential functions build into its design: reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability, and tensile strength.
The metallic tiles reflect light on one side and absorb it on the other, providing a mechanism for thermal regulation.
The fabric is pliable yet durable and can be manipulated into a variety of shapes, all the while retaining its ductile qualities. This means it can be pulled on without breaking, and it can be folded in different ways, adapting to multiple requirements.
All these characteristics make the "space fabric" suitable for a wide range of possible applications.
This foldable material could act as a shield, protecting astronauts from debris floating in the cosmos or even entire spacecraft from oncoming asteroids. Another possible use would be spacecraft and spacesuit insulation in missions on icy terrains, such as Jupiter's moon, Europa.
The fabric's adaptability to difficult terrain could make it indispensable on uneven alien surfaces, over which it could easily fold. In addition, it could offer a means of paving over unstable icy terrain, without melting the ice beneath.
The highly pliable metal fabric could also be used to make large antennas and other objects deployed in space. At the same time, it could prove useful in capturing objects on the surface of another planet.
Plans For 3D Printing The 'Chain Mail' Fabric In Space
Apart from testing the new fabric where it was meant to be used — in space — JPL researchers also aim to one day manufacture it there too. Polit Casillas believes that future space explorers could print their own materials according to equipment needs.
Moreover, astronauts in space missions could use this technology to even recycle out-of-date pieces and employing them to create new fabrics to spare limited resources.
Printing materials on site and incorporating different functions into the design not only saves time and resources but also increases the usability of fabrics and equipment.
In the future, spacecraft housing could harbor different functions on the outside and the inside, combining structural design with practicality.
The high flexibility of the new invention extends to the composition of the fabric itself, which can be printed in a variety of materials and textures.
For instance, the "space fabric" prototype uses standard 3D-printer grist and is made up of plastic filaments that are melted and deposited in layers and later exposed to UV light to fuse them into shape. Future astronauts, however, could turn to metals found in alien soil to 3D print habitats and vehicle components.