Raul Polit Casillas, a systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is leading a team working on a new material that can change the way we look at space exploration. The team has unveiled prototypes swatches of a metallic material that they refer to as space fabric. This was created using 3D printing but incorporates advanced functions for space use that are not present in conventional materials.
You can’t understand the properties of the space fabric just by looking at it. At a first glance, it looks like a battle armor that might have been worn in the past. But, the fabric has two functioning sides. One side has the ability to reflect light and heat, while the other side absorbs them. According to NASA, folding the material in different ways can produce different amounts of reflecting capacity, heat absorption, and tensile strength.
The process of additive manufacturing was used to create this space fabric. This process involves building something layer by layer in one piece rather than machining different parts and assembling them later on. Streams of molten polymers and sintering metallic powders are used to build these layers using precisely controlled lasers and electron beams. This process greatly reduces the costs, as well as the number of parts that need to be assembled. It speeds up the prototyping process and allows us to make materials that would be impossible to make using conventional means.
Polit does not call this 3D printing but prefers the term 4D printing as it allows engineers not only to print the desired geometry but a function as well directly into the material. NASA believes that this technology will have a very large number of applications and can be used for anything and everything.
Large antennas that have the ability to be folded and change shape on demand, insulation of spacecraft visiting planets with freezing temperatures, flexible insulated pads for landers and rovers to give them a firm footing without melting the ice, astronaut suits, and collecting samples from other planets are some of the ways the space fabric can be used.
Polit and his team believe that one day the space fabric will be manufactured in space as well and not just made here and transported. This would conserve and recycle the precious resources that are already so scarce during space travel. The material could be used in the construction of the spacecraft themselves, decreasing the number of discrete components.
“I can program new functions into the material I’m printing,” says Polit Casillas. “That also reduces the amount of time spent on integration and testing. You can print, test and destroy material as many times as you want.”