NASA scientists have developed 3D-printed metal fabrics that could be used for astronaut spacesuits or as shields and insulation for spacecraft.
The foldable fabric - which can change shape quickly - could be useful for large antennas and other deployable devices as well. Another potential use might be for an icy moon like Jupiter's Europa, where these fabrics could insulate the spacecraft, researchers said.
At the same time, this flexible material could fold over uneven terrain, creating "feet" that would not melt the ice under them. The prototypes look like chain mail, with small silver squares strung together. These fabrics were not sewn by hand; instead, they were made using a technique called additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing.
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 Raul Polit-Casillas from NASA.
Fabricating spacecraft designs can be complex and costly, said Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Adding multiple functions to a material at different stages of development could make the whole process cheaper. It could also open the door to new designs, he said. 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 team not only wants to try out these fabrics in space someday, they want to be able to manufacture them in space, too. In future, astronauts might be able to print materials as they need - 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.