A team of scientists at NASA has blended the essence of fashion and engineering to produce a new fabric to use in space.
The 3D-printed metal fabric could be used as a shield for spacecraft from meteorites, astronaut spacesuit, capturing objects on the surface of another planet and also as an insulating material for spacecraft. The foldable fabric, which can change shape quickly, could be useful for large antennas and other deployable devices as well.
Raul Polit Casillas, one of the team members and a system engineer at NASA-JPL grew up around fabrics. Along with his colleagues, he designed prototypes of the fabric that look like chain mail, with small silver squares strung together.
The prototype looks like chain mail, with small silver squares strung together. These fabrics were not sewn by hand; they were made using a technique called additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing.
Unlike the usual manufacturing techniques, where-in they weld the parts together, additive manufacturing deposits material in layers to build up the desired object. This reduces the cost and also increases the ability to create unique materials.
Casilla said, “We call it ‘4D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials.” Fabricating spacecraft designs can be complex and costly said Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Adding multiple functions to a material at different stages of development could make the whole process cheaper. It could also open the door to new designs, he said.
The team not only wants to try out these fabrics in space someday, they want to be able to manufacture them in space, too.
The space fabrics have four essential functions. This includes reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and also tensile strength. One side of the fabric reflects light, while the other absorbs it. This thereby acts as a means of thermal control. It can fold and adapt to shapes while still being able to sustain the force of pulling on it.
This indeed is a revolutionary concept. The new fabric has now paved way for new techniques in spacecraft engineering. Instead of assembling something with dozens of parts, where there could be multiple errors, one can create the spacecraft of the future as a “whole cloth”. And also with added functions, it will prove to be a great breakthrough in space science.