NASA scientists have created a 3D-printed metal fabric that could serve as spacesuits for astronauts or could provide them shield and can even be used as insulation for spacecraft.
The 3D-printed metal fabric is foldable and has an ability to change shape quickly. The newly developed fabric could also be used for large antennas and other deployable devices.
Researchers said another potential use of the 3D-printed metal fabric could be insulation for spacecraft for an icy moon like Jupiter’s Europa.
This flexi material has the capability to get folded over uneven terrain, creating ‘feet’ that won’t melt the ice under them.
When you look at the prototype of the 3D-printed metal fabric, it looks like as if silver squares have been strung together just like a chain mail. The fabrics were not connected to each other by sewing or welding as it appears, but were combined together using a technique called additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing.
Unlike traditional techniques, additive manufacturing deposits material in layers to build up the desired object. This process increases the ability to create unique materials and brings down the cost.
“We call it ‘4D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” said Raul Polit-Casillas from NASA.
Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said fabricating spacecraft designs can be complex and costly.
He further said that adding multiple functions to a material at different stages of development could make the whole process cheaper and could also open the door to new designs.
Reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength are the four essential functions of space fabrics.
Acting as a means of thermal control, one side of the fabric reflects light, while the other absorbs it. It can fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes while still being able to sustain the force of pulling on it.
The team wants to try out these fabrics in space someday, and they also look forward to be able to manufacture them in space, too.
Astronauts might be able to print materials as they need in future and even recycle old materials, breaking them down and reusing them, said Polit-Casillas.
Conservation is critical when you are trapped in space with just the resources you take with you, he said.