The next generation of astronauts might be donning suits of chainmail. NASA always has groups of folks thinking stuff up. One group, led by JPL’s Raul Polit Casillas, is looking into how new fabrics could protect human and machine as we push deeper into the final frontier.

Unlike the blacksmiths of distant history, engineers at JPL don’t have to toil for days/weeks to make chainmail. They have an easy button. 3-D printing. Well, Polit Casillas actually dubs it 4-D printing. I’ll let him explain.

“We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” said Polit Casillas. “If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”

Let’s take a look at what the engineers created.

fabric prototype

When Polit Casillas mentions function, he’s describing features like tensile strength (how resistant it is to being pulled apart) and reflectivity. Take a look at the image below.

next-gen fabric

See how the two sides look different? The shiny side can reflect light, while the rougher underside absorbs it. This basically acts as insulation. Plus, it can fold in a lot of different ways while keeping its tensile strength.

Fabrics like this would be handy for deployable devices, shielding from meteorites and even the next-generation of astronaut spacesuits. Even missions to far-flung worlds like Europa could see benefits.

“One potential use might be for an icy moon like Jupiter’s Europa, where these fabrics could insulate the spacecraft. At the same time, this flexible material could fold over uneven terrain, creating “feet” that won’t melt the ice under them,” reads the JPL news release.

The JPL team has big plans for fabrics like this in the future. They don’t just want to use them in space, they want to make them there too. Deep-space exploration will only take you as far as the supplies you bring with you. We need to find ways to use the raw materials around us on distant worlds. 3-D printing is one possible solution. In the future, astronauts could just slap the easy button and create what they need.

Polit Casillas says that astronauts might even be able to recycle material they’re not using to make new stuff.

The printing technique is just as important as the material it makes. Being able to make materials with more than one use is huge. Today, JPL engineers can program new functions into the material on the fly. Plus, 3-D printing makes the entire process quicker. If a piece of fabric didn’t come out right, just toss it and print again.

Will space chainmail become a thing? This stuff is still deep in the prototype phase, but it’s thinking outside the box that will put humans on Mars and beyond. If that means space knights, bring it on.

Image credits: NASA/JPL



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