A team led by Raul Polit Casillas, Systems Engineer, NASA has unveiled prototype swatches of a new metallic “space fabric” which has been created using 3D printing. Developed in Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, USA, the fabric incorporates advanced functions that would be beneficial for use in space.
Appearing like a cross between chain mail and metallic tiles, the fabric is more than a fashion statement. It can reflect light and heat, while the opposite side absorbs it. By folding the material in different ways, it can conform to various shapes and produce the desired levels of reflectivity, passive heat management, and tensile strength, according to NASA.
In addition, the fabric with variety of applications has large antennas that can be folded and change shape quickly, and insulation for spacecraft visiting cold, icy moons and planets. It could also be used in flexible, insulated foot pads that would give landers and rovers a firm footing without melting the ice beneath them, micrometeorite shields for spacecraft, astronaut spacesuits, and for collecting samples on other planets.
It may be mentioned here that the fabric was produced using additive manufacturing, where an object isn’t milled or assembled, but built up layer by layer in one piece using streams of molten polymers or sintering metallic powders using precisely controlled lasers or electron beams. This allows for items to be made of very few parts needing final assembly, speeds up prototyping, greatly reduces costs, and allows for designs that would be impossible to produce using conventional methods.
Calling it “4D printing”, Casillas explains that it allows engineers to print both a desired geometry and function directly into a material, and moreover to incorporate multiple functions as well as produced organic, non-linear shapes at relatively low cost.
“I can program new functions into the material I’m printing. That also reduces the amount of time spent on integration and testing. You can print, test and destroy material as many times as you want,” says Casillas.