NASA eyes “chain mail” fabric for use in space

To protect its spacecraft from the rigors of deep space, a team of NASA engineers is turning to a time-honored — and battle-proven — solution: chain mail. Led by Raul Polit Casillas, whose mother is a fashion designer in Spain, the group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has developed a prototype fabric that puts an extraterrestrial spin on the armor of yore.

The fabric is strung together from a series of articulated metallic tiles, which reflect light on one side and absorb it on the other, providing a mechanism for thermal regulation. Pliable yet durable, it can also be manipulated into a variety of shapes without ceding tensile strength. 

That versatility makes the material well-suited for a range of potential applications — shielding objects deployed in space from debris, say, or insulating space suits for astronauts, JPL researchers said in a statement. Future explorers could even use it to pave over unstable alien terrain without melting the ice beneath. [Cosmic Threads: Astronauts Inspire Space-Age Fashion]

Unlike its medieval counterpart, which involved linking together tiny rings of hand-forged steel, JPL’s take employs the far less laborious process of 3D printing — or 4D, depending on whom you ask. 

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

Additive manufacturing — basically 3D printing on an industrial scale — makes the process of creating novel materials cheaper and easier. And that’s even without taking into account future leaps and bounds in technology.

The quick turnaround, in particular, makes tinkering with designs a cinch. 

“We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” said Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta, whose office at JPL funds research for emerging technologies like Polit Casillas’ fabric….

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