[Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

NASA scientists have created a metallic “space fabric” using 3-D printing techniques, and according to scientists, this new material would be used in space missions.

Recently, NASA revealed about the prototype of the fabric developed by a team of researchers under the supervision of a systems engineer Raul Polit Casillas at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The material actually appears like a cross between chain mail and metallic tiles and features small silver squares jointed together.

A special feature of this material is its ability to reflect and absorb light and heat from its opposite sides. It can be folded in different ways, which means the material can attain different shapes. Other features of the material are its tensile strength, reflectivity, and passive heat management.

The space fabric has been produced using 3-D printing technique or additive manufacturing. In this technique, a material is made layer by layer using streams of molten polymers or metallic powders. This technique speeds up prototyping, allows reducing costs, and enables create designs that would have been almost impossible to produce using conventional techniques.

“We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” said Polit Casillas.

“If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”

“I can program new functions into the material I’m printing,” Polit Casillas 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.”

Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta of JPL says fabricating spacecraft designs is a complex and costly matter, but the new technique could make the process a lot cheaper.

“We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” Shapiro-Scharlotta said.

“The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.”