Lately, when we hear about new developments in space exploration, it’s almost a guarantee that 3D printing will be involved somehow. We’re putting 3D printed components in our rocket engines and using the technology to fabricate satellites. There are 3D printers on the International Space Station, and we’re even working on developing methods of 3D printing our future housing and tools on the moon and Mars. It’s no surprise, therefore, when we learn of new 3D printing methods and materials being developed for space travel – but it never stops being exciting.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), scientists have designed a metal fabric that resembles a flexible, futuristic chain mail. The silver, strong fabric was 3D printed in one piece, and has four functional properties: reflectivity, foldability, passive heat management and tensile strength.

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

And those functions have the potential to be multitudinous. The 3D printed metal fabric could be used for astronauts’ space suits, or as a shield to protect a spacecraft from meteorites. It can aid in temperature control, as one side of the fabric reflects light while the other absorbs it. Large swaths of the material can be folded into a compact package, so it may be ideal for creating expandable devices that are deployable from space, such as antennae.

The material’s strength allows it to be pulled and manipulated into different shapes, and there’s no limit to its size. One potential use, for example, taking advantage of its specialized properties, would be as an insulating “skin” for a trip to an icy planet or moon, like Jupiter’s Europa. It could also be folded over the icy terrain, preventing the ice from melting.

This is all just the beginning, too. Polit-Casillas, who co-founded JPL’s Atelier rapid prototyping workshop, said that 3D printing allows for many more possibilities in terms of metal fabrics and their functions.

“I can program new functions into the material I’m printing,” he said. “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.”

In the future, he added, such materials could even be 3D printed in space, and be recycled an indefinite number of times by breaking them down and reusing them.

According to Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta of JPL, whose office funds research for early-stage space technologies, adding multiple functions to material at different stages of development can make the creation of spacecraft easier and less expensive. It can also enable the fabrication of devices that may have been impossible before.

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

Outer space may be endless, but the ventures we’ve been able to make into it have been very limited so far. 3D printing technology may not enable us to reach the entirety of space, but it’s looking more and more like it will help us to be able to go farther – and do more – than we ever have before. Discuss in the NASA JPL forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source/Images: NASA JPL]

 



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