Fashion And Engineering Collide To Produce ‘Space Fabric’

First Posted: Apr 20, 2017 06:20 AM EDT

Raul Polit-Casillas may be a systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, but he grew up with a fashion designer mother who taught him about materials, fabrics and design. As an adult, he is still very much into the world of textiles, but literally for out-of-this-world projects.

NASA reported that Polit-Casillas and his colleagues designed advanced woven metal fabrics that can be used in space. The fabrics could be useful not only for spacesuits, but for lage antennas and deployable devices as well. This is because the fabric, despite being made of metal, is foldable and can change its shape quickly.

Other possible uses include shielding a spacecraft from meteorites, for astronaut spacesuits or for capturing objects on the surface of other planets. One major potential use of the fabric include insulating the spacecraft that could be used to explore Jupiter's icy moon, Europa.

The prototypes that Polit-Casillas and his colleagues created so far look like a chain mail, with its silver squares strung together. Unlike other fabrics, however, these were not sewn by hand, but were "printed" with advanced technologies in a technique called additive manufacturing.

As New Atlas explained, the fabric was not milled or assembled. It was built layer by layer in one piece using polymers or sintering metallic powders used most often for controlled lasers or electron beams.

As for his fabric, Polit-Casillas called this "4D Printing," as it allows engineers to print both the desired geometry and function directly into the material. This allows the fabric to incorporate multiple functions at relatively low costs.

The team also desires that such fabrics will not only be used in space, but manufactured there as well, as a means of conserving and recycling resources aboard the spacecraft. This kind of technology can change the way spacecraft is engineered, as it will allow those who need them to create the "whole cloth" instead of printing in parts and components. Doing the latter would increase the possibility of failure.

With the fabric being manufactured in space, Polit-Casillas explained that new functions can be programmed into the material as it is printing. Thus, this reduces the amount of time spent on integration and testing. With their printing technology, the material could be destroyed and recycled as often as needed be.

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