Apr 19, 2017 | By Tess

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has unveiled its latest 3D printing development: metallic “space fabrics.” The 3D printed metal fabrics, which are strong, foldable, reflective, and highly heat resistant, could be used to create future astronaut spacesuits or as shields and insulation for spacecraft.

The innovative 3D printed metallic material is being developed by a team led by Raul Polit-Casillas, a systems engineer at the JPL who grew up surrounded by textiles and fabrics as his mother was a fashion designer. The 3D printed metal fabric could have many interesting applications for NASA and space exploration on the whole.

The material, which resembles a kind of square, silver chain-mail, was created using an additive manufacturing process, meaning that the individual pieces were not linked together, but were printed as a single piece. In fact, Polit-Casillas has even referred to the fabric’s manufacturing process as 4D printing.

He says, “We call it '4D 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."

At present, the 3D printed space fabrics currently have four main functions. They are: reflectivity, foldability, tensile strength, and passive heat management. The latter is a crucially important feature which is enabled by one side of the fabric being designed for light reflection, while the other absorbs heat. The folding function is also important as it means that the material can be easily adapted and fitted for different applications.

The innovative 3D printed space fabrics could be used to create durable and strong astronaut spacesuits, to make antennas or other deployable devices, to shield spacecraft from such things as meteorites, or even to capture and pick up objects from a planet’s surface. The JPL added that its new materials could also be used to insulate spacecraft on icy moons or planets (such as Jupiter’s Europa moon) and create “feet” that could fold over and form to uneven surfaces, reducing physical impacts on the surface such as ice melting.

For NASA, the multi-function space fabric could help cut back on development costs without sacrificing quality or function. The JPL’s Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta explained: “We are just scratching the surface of what's possible. The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.”

Ultimately, the JPL says it plans to manufacture its innovative 3D printed space fabrics in space, which could give astronauts more autonomy when they are in orbit. Polit-Casillas also suggested that astronauts could one day recycle old materials and 3D print them into new structures in space, which would offer obvious advantages given the lack of resources in space.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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