NASA has a long history of leveraging the advantages of 3D printing for its operations. They have already made use of EBAM and SLA. This time around, they have developed a new 4D fabric that helps shield space shuttles from meteorites. This new fabric also helps insulate the space vessels from extreme heat.
The material was made by systems engineer Raul Polit Casillas. The fabric is a combination of undisclosed metal substances. One of the ways in which it deters excess heat is that it has 2 sides: one which reflects heat and one that absorbs it. Both these sides work in tandem to produce a thermal control for passive heat management.
Another very promising quality of the fabric is that, as the lead scientists have pointed out, it is programmable. Programmable materials are a product of 4D printing. This allows researchers to install various functions into the fabric in response to factors such as, for example heat or sound. In reaction to these stimuli it can react in kind. This is particularly useful in spaceflight where the environment is so extreme and in need for versatile machineries and materials.
The 4D fabric material is ideal for space flight due to various other properties as well. It is also flexible and foldable, making it ideal for use within the sheath of spacecrafts. In fact, it’s thin and flexible structure also lends it to possible use in space suits themselves. NASA is planning to program it for future applications as well. They have, as of yet, not revealed what the fabric is composed of.
NASA and 3D Printing
Space travel projects, and particularly NASA, have a storied history together. Many space exploration programs have made great use of 3D printing. As mentioned earlier, NASA frequently use EBAM (electron beam additive manufacturing) to develop space tech.
NASA (and even air travel companies) find the ease of use that 3D printing allows to be a very handy. It has also allowed them to experiment with many different materials. NASA has supported 3D printing in other ways as well. One of which is encouraging the creation of products in space through competitions like the 3D printed habitat challenge.