TRAVELING TO OUTER space is an exercise in efficiency. At $10,000 per pound onboard, it pays to keep things light. But space is also an incredibly complex environment, requiring tons of hefty equipment just to exit the atmosphere. To minimize the weight of its payload, NASA has experimented with inflatable materials that can balloon into habitats, and tangles of lightweight rods that can shift shape on different terrains. Now, designers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have developed a foldable fabric that could pull triple duty during outer space missions.
Researchers at JPL spent the last two years developing a metallic space fabric made of interlocking stainless steel squares. It looks like chain mail, but unlike the ancient armor, NASA's fabric isn't welded together. Instead a 3-D printer extrudes stainless steel as a continuous sheet of material with different properties on each side. From the front of the fabric, rows of shiny, flat squares can reflect heat and light. On the back, a series of interlocking loops help the fabric absorb heat. Together, the single piece of material acts like a super-strong shield, protecting astronauts and spacecrafts from outer orbit's deadly obstacles.
The fabric isn't special in its functionality, per se; NASA already employs materials on its spacecrafts to reflect heat, absorb heat, and protect from flying debris. But until now, NASA didn't have a single material that could do all three. "We wanted to see if a structure could do something beyond being a static piece of material," says Raul Polit Casillas, a systems engineer at JPL who worked on the new fabric.