Systems engineer Raul Polit Casillas and colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, have designed advanced woven metal fabrics for use in space.
According to the engineers, these fabrics could potentially be useful for large antennas and other deployable devices, thanks to their shape-changing and foldable nature.
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. The flexible material could be further used to fold over uneven icy terrain, creating ‘feet-like apparatus’ that won’t melt the ice under them.
Fashioned to look like chain mail with small silver squares strung together, these fabrics were not sewn by hand; instead, they are 3D printed.
Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques, in which parts are welded together, additive manufacturing deposits material in layers to build up the desired object. This reduces the cost and increases the ability to create unique materials.
“We call it ‘4D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” said Casillas. “If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”
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.
Separate from his space fabric research, Polit Casillas co-leads JPL’s Atelier, a workshop that does rapid prototyping of advanced concepts and systems. This fast-paced, collaborative environment develops different technologies and infuses them into new concepts, one of which is 4D printing.
The end goal of Casillas’ research is to help astronauts print materials as they’re needed – and even recycle old materials, breaking them down and reusing them.
Image credits and content: NASA/JPL-Caltech