The space fabric is foldable and can change its shape quickly
Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created a new metallic “space fabric” that promises to revolutionize space industry. The new material is foldable and shape-shifting, so it could potentially work well for large antennas and other deployable devices in spacecraft.
While still in its prototype stage, the fabric will eventually be used for shielding a spacecraft from meteorites, for astronaut spacesuits or for capturing objects on the surface of another planet. During space missions, the metallic fabric can serve many purposes. It could be wrapped around a spacecraft and protect it from damaging conditions in outer space, while ensure smooth movement of robots or rovers while traversing uneven terrain and prevent the ice under them from being melt. It could potentially replace heavy, gas-pressurized spacesuits that are typically worn by astronauts today. The flexible spacesuits created by new material won’t be difficult to put on and will make it easier for astronauts to move around during spacewalks.
The first samples of new space fabric look similar to chainmail, consisting of small squires linked together in a pattern to form a bigger structure. But the material is not sewn by hands. Instead it is printed using advanced 3D technology and is extremely flexible.
"We call it '4-D printing' because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials," said Polit Casillas, the designer of the fabric. "If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions."
The new fabric is capable of both fabric reflecting and absorbing light, meaning it can regulate temperature and control thermal activity in space. The material can fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes while still applying force on it.
The material does not require different pieces to be stitched together. Instead it is manufactured as whole by adding layer upon layer of material. That reduces the cost. To make the production of the material even cheaper, researchers are hoping to send this technology to space and to replicate the same process there.
It could also change the way spacecrafts are created. Currently, spacecrafts are created by connecting different parts together. The future spacecraft could be created "whole cloth" with less effort and cost.
"I can program new functions into the material I’m printing," said Polit 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."