NASA scientists have developed a metallic space fabric that appears like a fusion of metallic tiles and chain mail and could be used to make spacesuits for astronauts. According to NASA, this new material could also help scientists create a shield to protect spacecraft from meteorites.

The prototype of the space fabric has been developed by a team of NASA scientists led by Raul Polit-Casillas, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Properties of space fabric

According to NASA, this fabric has been “printed” in one piece using advanced 3-D printing techniques.

The main features of this material are its tensile strength, passive heat management, reflectivity, and foldability. The fabric, having tiny silver squares joined, can reflect and absorb light from its opposite sides. It can be folded in a variety of ways and can attain different shapes.

Researchers believe this property of the material could allow its use in making big antennas and other deployable devices that would change shape quickly. Scientists are also optimistic about its potential use in icy moons like Jupiter’s Europa to insulate the spacecraft, and to create flexible foot pads for landers and rovers to provide them firm footing on uneven terrain without melting the ice under their “feet.”

Space fabric would be created using 3-D printing techniques

According to researchers, creating such fabrics would require 3-D printing or additive manufacturing on a large scale.

With additive manufacturing, the desired object can be created by depositing material like molten polymers or metallic powders in layers using precisely controlled electron beams or lasers. This method not only helps in reducing costs and speeding up prototyping but also allows creating designs that are nearly impossible to make using conventional methods.

Polit-Casillas prefers calling space fabric manufacturing technique as ‘4-D printing’ as it allows printing the geometry as well as the functions directly into the fabric. This technique also enables scientists to produce organic, non-linear shapes at low costs. Now, the JPL team is not only thinking about using these fabrics in space but also wants technology to manufacture the fabric in space.

Polit Casillas believes astronauts in the distant future would be able to print materials in space as needed. They would even recycle old materials for reuse. Likewise, the design-based thinking of future would revolutionize the engineering and design of spacecraft of the future. Probably, it would also be possible to create future spacecraft using 3-D printing technology and equipping them with added functionality as well.