NASA is usually so busy showing off all the awesome stuff it finds out in space that it's easy to lose track of the cool projects it's working on here on Earth, but the new "space fabric" designed by engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is just too cool to overlook. Like some kind of futuristic chainmail, it not only looks ridiculously awesome, it's also a potential solution for protecting space-faring astronauts from debris like meteorites.
The design of the fabric, which was led by JPL engineer Raul Polit Casillas, is such that it's both flexible and highly durable against impacts. It's the same basic premise that led medieval combatants to create chainmail, and while the concept may be centuries old, it remains sound as a means of protection.
However, unlike traditional chainmail, this new metal fabric isn't constructed of separate pieces. Instead, it's 3D-printed as a unit and each of the small pieces of armor is already attached to its neighbors once printing has finished. "We call it '4-D printing' because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials," Casillas said. "If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions."
The applications for the new space fabric are many. In addition to the aforementioned possibility of giving astronauts flexible armor against space rocks, sheets of the material could also be applied to space vehicles, antennas, and other hardware to give it similar protection.