NASA is hoping to resurrect the idea of chainmail armour – but give it a very modern twist.
The space agency is developing hi-tech fabrics it hopes to use to cover next generation spacecraft to protect them.
The ‘chainmail’ is a woven metal fabric that can easily change shape – much like a suit of armour.
‘We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,’ said Raul Polit Casillas, the son of a Spanish fashion designer who is leading the project.
‘If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.’
The fabrics could potentially be useful for large antennas and other deployable devices, because the material is foldable and its shape can change quickly, NASA hopes.
The fabrics could also eventually be used to shield a spacecraft from meteorites, for astronaut spacesuits, or for capturing objects on the surface of another planet.
One potential use might be for an icy moon like Jupiter’s Europa, where these fabrics could insulate the spacecraft, NASA said.
The flexible material can also fold over uneven terrain, creating ‘feet’ that won’t melt the ice under them.
The prototypes were 3D printed, reducing the cost and increasing the ability to create unique materials.
Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta of JPL, whose office funds research for early-stage technologies like the space fabric, said that adding multiple functions to a material at different stages of development could make the whole process cheaper.
‘We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,’ Shapiro-Scharlotta said.
‘The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.’
The space fabrics have four essential functions: reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength.
One side of the fabric reflects light, while the other absorbs it, acting as a means of thermal control.
It can fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes while still being able to sustain the force of pulling on it.
The JPL team not only wants to try out these fabrics in space someday, they want to be able to manufacture them in space, too.
Spacecraft housing could have different functionality on its outsides and insides, becoming more than just structural.
‘I can program new functions into the material I’m printing,’ Polit Casillas said.
‘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.’