Producing tools and structures in space has been a challenge for decades. We have now found ways of bringing 3D printing to space, integrating extraterrestrial materials into 3D printing, and even printing functions into materials. These advances seem to be paving the way for a manned mission to Mars and beyond, as tools and materials can be accurately created to fill a specific niche.
Why is the material necessary?
Materials must evolve as we expand into space so that they have more than one purpose. Much like steel and iron are formed to serve as cookware, vehicle structure, and the shells and spines of modern buildings. 3D printing materials not only into forms, but printing purposes into them has become known as 4D printing.
This material, manufactured by a NASA materials engineer can be used for both reflecting light and heat, as well as absorbing it. The potential uses of this material extend from making shoes to walk on ice without transferring heat to reflecting light and radio waves, much like a radar dish or antenna. The material has an added benefit of being able to occupy smaller volumes of space for the same size of antenna in traditional forms.
The outcome of using a 4D printing approach is a reduced cost of manufacture and increased material strength through material purity or precise material blending without concern for weld contamination. The NASA materials engineer stated the following about the material:
“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.”
What the material actually does
This material combines two opposing purposes into one thin sheet of metal–absorption of light and heat and reflection of light and heat. According to NASA, applications include RF and light reflection, shoe and clothing production for extraterrestrial exploration, and even use in antennas and possibly thermal resistance layers on spacecraft.
One side of the material is slick and shiny, while the other closely resembles chainmail, allowing for the two unique properties that have been printed into the material. The chainmail-esque side allows for anchoring of the material to structures, absorption of light and heat, and formation of reflective clothing with seamless assembly.
The material can also be printed into other, more organic shapes while retaining the material strength. The example is printed from silver, but other materials can be used for a variety of desired properties.
How is material the made?
This material was 4D printed by NASA in small squares with woven, chainmail-like structures on the back of each link. The links are printed together, much like traditional fabrics are woven together or chainmail was fused, link by link.
By fusing the squares together at the time of manufacture, rather than using different materials to fuse the parts, the material gains a significant boost to structural strength, primarily due to the lack of contamination in the materials. Normal welding and other assembly processes rely on fusing two different metals with enormous amounts of heat, weakening even structures like steel members.
Summary of material properties
This new material can be printed from a variety of elements or element mixtures to achieve the necessary properties for new operating conditions while reducing fear of contamination due to manufacturing processes. Higher accuracy in material composition allows for more reliable materials testing and higher reliability in material performance.
By building increased levels of functionality and new functions into materials, it is now possible to reduce the amount of mass needed to be transported into space. After all, many of the necessary components can be printed outside of the atmosphere now. We can even 3D print tools and other needed objects from regolith, similar to the soil found on Earth’s Moon and Mars.
This new material stands poised to allow for much more accurate materials manufacturing, testing, and implementation. Material manufacturing accuracy is likely to yield higher reliability in mission critical systems, as well as allowing highly complex structures to be printed on the fly for repairs or necessary tools.