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NASA Is 3D Printing Chainmail for Space Travel

Chainmail was a form of armor popular during Medieval times that consists of hundreds of small metal rings linked together to form armor. While better protection has long made it obsolete, NASA has reimagined its potential as a way to protect astronauts during space travel. Of course, they're not piecing it together like the people of yesteryear – they're printing it out.

This metallic "space fabric" was created using 3-D printed techniques that add different functionality to each side of the material.

The Fourth Dimension Is Function

Systems engineer Raul Polit Casillas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Pasadena, California is working with a team to develop a metal fabric strongly resembling chainmail in both look and functionality. It makes sense that Casillas would turn his attention to futuristic fabric—his mother is a fashion designer, after all. On its smooth, tiled side, the metallic fabric reflects light, while the other side absorbs it, so it can offer not only physical protection, but thermal protection too.

Rather than painstakingly linking each piece by hand, the fabric is 3D—make that 4D printed. "We call it '4-D printing' because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials," Casillas said in a statement. The printing process makes the material incredibly versatile, since it can be created both on Earth and in space.

Multipurpose Armor

When most of us think of chainmail, we think of body armor. But this space-age chainmail can be used for much more than protecting astronauts. It could be used to shield or insulate spacecraft, too, and to capture objects in space or on different planets. Its collapsible nature would make it great for large antennae and other devices astronauts would need to deploy. It could also spread out on a planet's surface for a safer landing on rough terrain. Maybe the question isn't what NASA's 3D-printed chainmail can do, but what can't it do?

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Space-Age Materials

3D Printed Chainmail Could Provide Protection In Space

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. One of the lightest solid materials in the world, aerogels are gels where the liquid has been replaced with gas. They’re great for insulation because the air doesn’t transfer heat very well, and they’re almost transparent, so they could be good for insulating windows. 00:42

  2. In 2015, scientists designed an 80-nanometer-thin material that uses tiny gold antennas to counteract light reflecting off of any objects it wraps around, hiding the fact that either the material or the object is even there. 01:37

  3. Self-healing concrete contains limestone-creating bacteria that can repair any cracks that form. The bacteria can live for up to 200 years. 07:17

Written by Mike Epifani May 8, 2017

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