The great chain mail was one of the most revolutionary inventions of pre-medieval Europe, not just because of its efficiency, but also because of its economy. It was a flexible, relatively simple and cost-effective armor that can be mass produced at a military scale.
Looking back at this wonderful innovation, one systems engineer at NASA has set about a new project that would indirectly revive its legacy. Enter, the Space Chain Mail!
Linking Fashion and Engineering
Designed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) systems engineer Raul Polit Casillas, this very thing that you see in this image is a new type of woven metal fabric that is designed for space applications. The main concept of the design was to fabricate (pun intended) an integrated material that is flexible/foldable, and yet could provide adequate protection at an efficient scale. Just like the chain-linked armors of antiquity.
The research team hopes that the material could be deployed on a wide variety of situations in space exploration. Temperature control, for instance, can be easily achieved, providing either a source of heat or insulation for any component of the spacecraft that requires shielding. Another example is that it could also be used as a kind of layered blanket. It can be spread over a large area of alien terrain to compensate for potential traversing issues, such as lunar regolith or icy surfaces on Europa.
Again, the most important feature of the material is its flexibility. The idea is that it does not require a huge space for storage, yet can be deployed at a large area when necessary, characteristics that are critically important for deep space travel.
Print and Weave, Test and Throw
But perhaps more than its inherent adaptability, the woven metal fabric is designed to be manufactured easily via 3D printing. As many space junkies already know, 3D printing has been a very hot topic for space enthusiasts and professional scientists alike, due to the technology’s potential to introduce space exploration to a whole new level of practicality.
According to the original report, the research team made use of a 3D printing-optimized technique called “additive manufacturing“. In this process, the woven metal fabric can be crafted and completed in layers in order to build the material at a significantly reduced cost. The altered nature of this new technique, in comparison to standard manufacturing techniques, allows for more unique designs, thus giving the opportunity to edit and optimize the designs further as needed.
Just imagine, a complex, flexible material, that can be stored efficiently, can be used on the fly, and can even be engineered or manufactured using the very materials of our interplanetary neighborhood. Now, extrapolate this with our current knowledge about materials production in space (e.g Sabatier reaction, Lunacrete, Asteroid mining, etc.). No longer would space be the vast empty void. Future astronauts could simply gather materials just as how 15th-century explorers did in far away places that they ventured to.
As for the current research, the team is extending their ideas to open the space chain mail to even more applications. They are planning to make the process a closed cycle, allowing for near endless reusability and experimental data acquisition.