Science and Technology, Technology

This ‘Space Fabric’ Links Design And Engineering

A NASA systems engineer with a family background in fashion design is building an advanced woven metal fabric for use in space.

Raul Polit Casillas, the son of a Spanish fashion designer, was always curious about the intersection of design and technology. Now working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California he has the opportunity to explore his unique passions. Raul and colleagues are designing advanced woven metal fabrics for use in outer space.

The applications for these types of fabrics include large antennae, and “deployable devices”, due to the permeable nature of the material. It is also speculated that the fabric could be used to shield spacecrafts from hazardous objects, in use for astronaut suits, or for capturing objects in outer space. One theorized application is the usage of these fabrics to insulate a spacecraft on Europa, and use the fabric to provide “feet” for even landing surfaces.




 

Another example of a 3-D-printed metallic “space fabric.” The bottom and top sides of the fabric are designed to have different functionality.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Early versions of the fabric look like medieval chain mail made from small silver squares. The fabric is not stitched together, rather it’s 3D printed as one entire piece. The technique used to build the fabric is known as “additive manufacturing”, that can also be known as 4D printing:

“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.”




 

Because building new spacecraft and technology for space travel is highly costly, Polit sees his fabric as a possible solution to fiscal challenges. Instead of building new materials to suit new projects, it’s possible that we could adapt existing materials to suit the challenge.

“We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” Shapiro-Scharlotta said. “The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.”

The fabric is designed to manage four key functions: reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength.

The future is strong for the possibility of ‘space fabrics’. It’s possible that astronauts can print, break down, recycle, and re-use materials with the use of additive manufacturing. In space, conservation is extremely important so it’s essential to make the most of all materials.




 

This metallic “space fabric” was created using 3-D printed techniques that add different functionality to each side of the material. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Jamie is an amateur astronomer and every day space geek.