NASA's Meteorite-Resistant Fabric Perfect For Space Armor
An advanced woven fabric created at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory would be perfect for space armor dreamed of by science fiction writers. Systems Engineer Raul Polit Casillas has created some great prototypes.
(Meteorite-Resistant Space Fabrics)
These fabrics could potentially be useful for large antennas and other deployable devices, because the material is foldable and its shape can change quickly. The fabrics could also eventually be used to shield a spacecraft from meteorites, for astronaut spacesuits, or for capturing objects on the surface of another planet. One potential use might be for an icy moon like Jupiter's Europa, where these fabrics could insulate the spacecraft. At the same time, this flexible material could fold over uneven terrain, creating "feet" that won't melt the ice under them.
The prototypes that Polit Casillas and colleagues have created look like chain mail, with small silver squares strung together. But these fabrics were not sewn by hand; instead, they were "printed," created in one piece with advanced technologies.
A technique called additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3-D printing on an industrial scale, is necessary to make such fabrics. Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques, in which parts are welded together, additive manufacturing deposits material in layers to build up the desired object. This reduces the cost and increases the ability to create unique materials.
"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."
Space armor was a staple of Golden Age science fiction; here's a taste from Revolt of the Star Men by Raymond Z. Gallun, published in 1932:
It must have been over two hours later that a huge torpedo set in motion by the forces of the Black Emperor, struck the ship. The explosion rolled her completely over, and tore a jagged though not disabling hole in her side. The air puffed out from the control room compartment, but the men who labored so feverishly there, were clad in heavy space armor, and aside from being badly bruised they were unhurt.
(Read more about space armor)
To be fair, JPL's space fabrics are intended for a variety of uses - space armor is probably not high on their list:
The space fabrics have four essential functions: reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength. One side of the fabric reflects light, while the other absorbs it, acting as a means of thermal control. It can fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes while still being able to sustain the force of pulling on it.