Chainmail armors are so out of the modern age – except in fictional works, of course. But engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have produced a similar material for a special purpose: the protection of the next generation of spacecraft.
The engineered fabric is metallic in nature, a hybrid of chainmail and plate armor. It was 3D-printed so materials were layered to build up the fabric and was produced relatively cheaper than present methods.
It easily changes its shape, designed so by systems engineer Raul Polit Casillas, the son of a Spanish fashion designer, who is leading the project.
He said, “We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials. If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”
According to NASA, the engineered metallic fabric has four essential functions: reflectivity, passive heat management, fold-ability, and tensile strength.
Being a chainmail in a 3-dimensional mesh, it offers light weight and flexibility. It allows to be collapsed in on itself and stretch right back out without becoming work-hardened. It has considerable tensile strength, able to sustain the force of pulling on it.
One side of the fabric reflects light, while the other absorbs it, acting as a means of thermal control.
Its designers believe that the material can be used for large antennas and other deployable devices, for acting as a shield on a spacecraft from meteorites, for astronaut spacesuits, and for capturing objects on the surface of another planet.
Engineers behind this breakthrough technology not only want the metallic fabric to be used in space someday, but also looks at manufacturing them outside the Earth.
Polit Casillas co-handles JPL’s Atelier, a workshop that does rapid prototyping of advanced concepts and systems. One of its specialties is 4D printing.
In lieu, he believes that astronauts might be able to print materials as they’re needed – and even recycle old materials, breaking them down and reusing them. Additive manufacturing offers various, critical applications in space.
“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.”