NASA Developing 3D-Printed ‘Chain Mail’

May 3, 2017 Updated: May 3, 2017

Chain mail is coming back in style, at least in space. Researchers at NASA are trying to figure out how to use the metallic material for everything from protection for astronaut suits to covering satellites and spacecraft.

It’s not the same chain mail that protected knights in the Middle Ages though. NASA’s fabric is made with materials like stainless steel and carbon fiber, and instead of linking the rings together through welding, a 3D printer prints the links in layers, creating and interlinking them all at once.

That not only makes integration much easier, but also allows you to play with geometries and shapes that you won’t be able to do with any other process,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory systems engineer, Raul Polit Casillas told Reuters.

The other advantage to making it with a 3D printer is that it can be made out in space. Astronauts will be able to tweak the design to create what they need, and once a creation has reached the end of its usefulness, Polit Casillas envisions being able to reuse the material by breaking it down and making it into something else.

In addition to protection for astronauts and spacecrafts, it could be used to scoop up objects on other planets or as a shape-shifting covering for satellites.

“One of the functions that we’re really interested in and are doing some research in and prototyping is shape control,” Polit Casillas said. “We want to see if we can control some shape conditions of it.”

The current model, being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, also has a thermal control function built into it. One side of the material can absorb light, while the other reflects it.

This could be useful for insulating a spacecraft when traveling to a place like Jupiter’s moon Europa, which NASA scientists believe is covered in ice. The material could be used like feet to walk on the surface without melting the ice, or used to insulate the spacecraft from the cold.

Implementation of the material is still at least 10 years away. But if it does come to fruition, we can  expect that outer space won’t be the limit for its usefulness. NASA research has given us many everyday products, like freeze-dried food, Hoovers, memory foam, precision GPS, and enriched baby formula.

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