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NASA’s ‘space fabric’ looks like chain mail, but it’s SO much more

We all too often hear of NASA’s goings on up in space, but we’re rarely aware of its work down here on earth. Until now.

Raul Polit Casillas, the son of a Spanish fashion designer, has had a passion and curiosity for textiles and their creation his whole life. Now a systems engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Polit Casillas has developed a new fabric, referred to as “space fabric”. This clever material will provide protection to astronauts, spaceships and deployable devices.

You would think “space fabric” should look incredibly complex. However, to the normal eye it could easily be mistaken for good, old-fashioned chain mail. Inspired by traditional textiles, this armour relies on the advances in additive manufacturing (3D printing on an industrial scale).

The space fabric prototype relies on 3D printing to create metal squares in one piece, which are then strung together to form a coat of armour.

“We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” says Polit Casillas.

Silver printed material / armour

The space fabric has three essential functions;

  • Reflectivity (One side reflects light while the other absorbs it)
  • Passive heat management (thermal control)
  • Foldability and tensile strength (fold in many different ways and adapt to shape, while maintaining tensile strength.

By adding multiple functions to a material during development stages, the entire process can be made cheaper.

“The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs”, says manager at JPLs Space Technology Office, Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta.

With such advances in technology, NASA believes it may one day be manufactured in space, not just used there.

There’s no doubt that the production of space material can (and will) revolutionise the way spacecraft and space systems are engineered. Instead of needing to assemble many disparate parts, with each join a point of weakness, craft can now be created “whole cloth”

With the ability to protect craft from meteorites and other hazards, the material has the power to revolutionise not only technology development but also space exploration itself. There’s the possibility that the material could be used to build habitats for Mars and the moon, along with creating landing strips on rough terrain.

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