NASA’s new material looks like chain mail for astronauts
Chain mail, it’s fair to say, has fallen out of fashion in recent years, but NASA is looking at bringing back knight-fashion for its astronauts with a new and incredibly versatile “space fabric.”
How versatile? Well, the first thing to note is how flexible it is: despite having a great deal of tensile strength, it can be folded in a number of different ways. It can adapt to all kinds of different shapes, meaning you can use it for everything from space suits to insulation. One side of the fabric is designed to reflect light, while the other side absorbs it, ensuring it behaves as an effective thermal control. Think outside the box and its unique form and function come up with fascinating use cases – such as rolling it out over Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, so that ice won’t melt underneath exploring astronauts.
Its made through a kind of 3D printing, although NASA feels that term doesn’t quite do it justice, so has coined the term 4D printing. “We call it ‘4D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” said Raul Polit-Casillas, a system engineer at NASA’s jet propulsion lab. “If 20th-century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”
What does he mean by “mass production of functions”? Simply that NASA can alter the functionality of the fabric as it prints it. “I can program new functions into the material I’m printing,” explains Casillas. “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.”
The hope is that astronauts will be able to print their own materials as they need them, possibly recycling elements for reuse – and not just on Earth, ideally. Being able to print such a versatile material from the comfort of your own Mars colony could certainly make the whole space exploration thing that bit more appealing. Looking like some kind of space-knight while you do it is just a bonus.