NASA’s Space Chainmail to Give Astronauts the Edge in Space Duels

One would think NASA was preparing for a some sword fights in space! At least, that’s the impression one might get when they see the new armor NASA is developing for the first time. Officially, they are referring to it as a new type of “space fabric“, one which will provide protection to astronauts, spaceships and deployable devices. But to the casual observer, it looks a lot like chain mail armor!

The new armor is the brainchild of Polit Casillas, a systems engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Inspired by traditional textiles, this armor relies on advances made in additive manufacturing (aka. 3-D printing) to create woven metal fabrics that can fold and change shape quickly. And someday soon, it could be used for just about everything!

As the son of a fashion designer in Spain, Casillas grew up around fabrics and textiles, and was intrigued by how they are used for the sake of design. Much in the same way that textiles are produced by weaving together countless threads, Casilla’s prototype space fabric relies on 3-D printing to create metal squares in one piece, which are then strung together to form a coat of armor.

Another example of a 3-D-printed metallic “space fabric.” The bottom and top sides of the fabric are designed to have different functionality. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition to his work with this new space fabric, Casillas co-leads JPL’s Atelier workshop, which specialized in the rapid-prototyping of advanced concepts and systems. This fast-paced collaborative environment works with different technologies and looks for ways to incorporate new ones (such as 4-D printing) into existing designs. As Casillas described this concept in a NASA press release:

“We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials. If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”

The space fabrics have four essential functions, which includes reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength. With one side reflecting light and the other absorbing it, the material acts as a means of thermal control. It can also fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes, all the while maintaining tensile strength to ensure it can sustain forces pulling on it.

These fabrics could be used to protect astronauts and shield large antennas, deployable devices and spacecraft from meteorites and other hazards. In addition, they could be used to ensure that missions to extreme environments would be protected from the elements. Consider Jupiter’s moon Europa, which NASA is planning on exploring in the coming decade using a lander – aka. the Europa Clipper mission.

Artist’s concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Here, and on other “ocean worlds” – like Ceres, Enceladus, Titan and Pluto – this sort of flexible armor could provide insulation for spacecraft. They could be used on landing struts to ensure that they could change shape to fit over uneven terrain as well. This kind of material could also be used to build habitats for Mars or the Moon – like the South Pole-Aitken Basin, where permanently-shadowed craters allow for the existence of water ice.

Another benefit of this material is the fact that it is considerably cheaper to produce compared to materials made using traditional fabrication methods. Under ordinary conditions, designing and building spacecraft is a complex and costly process. But by adding multiple functions to a material at different stages of development, the whole process can be made cheaper and new designs can be implemented.

Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta is a manager at the JPL’s Space Technology Office, an office responsible for funding  early-stage technologies like the space fabric. As he put it, this sort of production process could enable all kinds of designs and new mission concepts. “We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” he said. “The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.”

In keeping with how 3-D printing has been developed for use aboard the ISS, the JPL team not only wants to use this fabric in space, but also manufacture it in space as well. In the future, Casillas also envisions a process whereby tools and structural materials can be printed from recycled materials, offering additional cost-savings and enabling rapid, on-demand production of necessary components.

Such a production process could revolutionize the way spacecraft and space systems are created. Instead of ships, suits, and robotic craft created from many different parts (which then have to be assembled), they could be printed out like “whole cloth”. The manufacturing revolution, it seems, loometh!

Further Reading: NASA

NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration

Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts out the call to the general public, hoping to find better or entirely new aerospace architectures, systems, or mission ideas. As part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program has been in operation since 1998, serving as a high-level entry point to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers who want to contribute to human space exploration.

This year, thirteen concepts were chosen for Phase I of the NIAC program, ranging from reprogrammed microorganisms for Mars, a two-dimensional spacecraft that could de-orbit space debris, an analog rover for extreme environments, a robot that turn asteroids into spacecraft, and a next-generation exoplanet hunter. These proposals were awarded $100,000 each for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.

Continue reading “NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration”

Here’s The First 3-D Part Printed In Space. Where Will That Take Us Next?

Here’s the 22nd-century version of breaking the surly bonds of Earth: NASA and private company Made In Space have just collaborated on the first 3-D printed part in space, ever.

The milestone yesterday (Nov. 25) is a baby step towards off-Earth manufacturing, but the implications are huge. If these testbeds prove effective enough, eventually we can think of creating these parts in other destinations such as the Moon, or an asteroid, or even Mars.

“We look at the operation of the 3-D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth,” stated Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space — the company that developed the printer.

There are still kinks to be worked out, however. The “part adhesion” on the tray after the piece was created had a bond that was mightier than controllers anticipated, which could mean that bonding is different in microgravity. A second calibration coupon should be created shortly as controllers make adjustments to the process.

Artist's conception of a lunar dome based on 3-D printing. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners
Artist’s conception of a lunar dome based on 3-D printing. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

We’ll see several of these “test coupons” manufactured in the next few months and then sent back to Earth for more detailed analysis. Meanwhile, we have two more 3-D printers to look forward to in space: one created by the Italians that should arrive while their citizen, Samantha Cristoforetti, is still on station (she just arrived a few days ago) and a second one created by Made In Space that is supposed to commercialize the process.

The idea of 3-D printing has been discussed extensively in the media by both NASA and the European Space Agency in the past year or so. ESA has released media speculating on how additive manufacturing could be used to create Moon bases at some distant date. Meanwhile, NASA has talked about perhaps creating food using a 3-D printer.

If additive manufacturing takes off, so to speak, it could reduce shipping costs from Earth to the International Space Station because controllers could just send up a set of instructions to replace a part or tool. But NASA should move quickly to test this stuff out, according to a recent National Research Council report; the station is approved for operations only until 2020 (so far), which leaves only about five years or so to do testing before agencies possibly move to other destinations.

Smart Robots Could Build ‘Snow Forts’ On The Moon One Day

The Moon is so close to us, and yet so far. Just last year the Chang’e-3 spacecraft and Yutu rover made the first soft landing on the surface in more than a generation. Humans haven’t walked in the regolith since 1972. But that hasn’t decreased the desire of some to bring people back there — with an armful of new technologies to make life easier.

Take the European Space Agency’s desire to do 3-D printing on the lunar surface. Rovers with big scoopers would pick up the moon dust and use that as raw materials to make a habitat that humans would then enjoy. Far out? Perhaps, but it is something the agency is seriously examining in consultation with Foster+Partners. See the video above.

Universe Today recently explored the value of being on the Moon or a nearby asteroid. In a nutshell, the lower gravity would make it easier to loft things from the base, making it potentially cheaper to explore the Solar System. That said, there are considerable startup costs. One thing that could be considered is the value of investing in smart robots that could build simple structures on the moon or even (gasp) build other prototypes to replace or supplement them.

As ESA explained in a 2013 blog post, the agency envisions using robots to use more “local” resources on the moon and to reduce the need to ship stuff in from planet Earth. “As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials,” stated Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners specialist modelling group. “Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic.”

The new video takes that concept a bit further and specifies a location: Shackleton Crater, which receives near-constant sunlight in certain areas, next to spots that are in permanent shadow. As ESA explains, being in this crater allows the best of two scenarios: constant energy available for solar panels, but areas to build structures that would be more sensitive to extreme heat.

ESA plans to push forward its research from 2013 to look at “harnessing concentrated sunlight to melt regolith rather than using a binding liquid,” as the agency explains on its YouTube page. Moon dust structures glued together with more moon dust? Sounds like the ultimate snow fort.

A 3-D Printed Telescope Took This Picture Of The Moon — And The Plans Are Coming

What would Galileo think of this? Here’s a shot of our closest large celestial neighbor, the Moon, taken through a 3-D printed telescope. Better yet — before long, the creators of this telescope promise, the plans will be made available on the Internet for all to use.

The concept (called PiKon) is based on a Newtonian reflecting telescope, with the rays of light focused onto a Raspberry Pi camera’s photo sensor.

“This is all about democratizing technology, making it cheap and readily available to the general public,” stated Mark Wrigley, who-co led the design. He runs a one-person company (Alternative Photonics) and built the telescope with support from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

“And the PiKon is just the start. It is our aim to not only use the public’s feedback and participation to improve it, but also to launch new products which will be of value to people.”

The mirror size of the telescope was not disclosed in a press release, but its magnification is 160. This makes it able to look at planets, moons, galaxies and star clusters. Stacking images is also possible to look for moving objects such as comets, the university stated.

The creators say it only costs £100 ($165) to make, so we can hardly wait to see what the plans contain. More information on the telescope is available on the PiKon website.

Source: University of Sheffield

A Whole New World: How NASA Helps You 3-D Print The Universe

How would it feel like to hold an asteroid or spacecraft in your hands? NASA is giving you that chance through a special website that includes 3-D printable models of various things, ranging from the asteroid Eros to the Rosetta spacecraft, which is going to make an epic rendezvous with a comet in just a couple of weeks.

NASA’s 3D resources website now includes nearly two dozen models, including several released in the past few weeks. You can print out Curiosity’s landing site (Gale Crater), or perhaps the Voyager spacecraft that is further away than anything else humanity has sent out into the universe, or any other number of locations or hardware.

So if you learn best by using your hands, here’s your big chance to have some fun. Or to entertain the kids during summer vacation, if you can get access to a community or personal printer!

Sketch of a 3-D model of Valles Marineris on Mars. Credit: NASA
Sketch of a 3-D model of Valles Marineris on Mars. Credit: NASA

(h/t 3DPrint.com)

3-D Printer To Fly To Space In August, Sooner Than Planned

A 3-D printer intended for the International Space Station has passed its NASA certifications with flying colors — earning the device a trip to space sooner than expected. The next Dragon spacecraft, scheduled to launch in August, will carry the Made In Space printer on board.

“Passing the final tests and shipping the hardware are significant milestones, but they ultimately lead to an even more meaningful one – the capability for anyone on Earth to have the option of printing objects on the ISS. This is unprecedented access to space,” stated Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer.

The device was originally supposed to launch not on this next Dragon flight, but the one after that. But it recently completed several tests looking at everything from vibration to human design to electromagnetic interference, and was deemed enough of a “minimal risk” to get moved up a slot.

A close-up of the 3-D printer made by Made In Space Inc. Credit: Made In Space
A close-up of the 3-D printer made by Made In Space Inc. Credit: Made In Space

This 3-D printer will be the first to be used in orbit. Officials have already printed out several items on the ground to serve as a kind of “ground truth” to see how well the device works when it is installed on the space station. It will be put into a “science glovebox” on the International Space Station and print out 21 demonstration parts, such as tools.

“The next phase will serve to demonstrate utilization of meaningful parts such as crew tools, payload ancillary hardware, and potential commercial applications such as cubesat components,” Made In Space added in a statement.

Once fully functional, the 3-D printer is supposed to reduce the need to ship parts from Earth when they break. This will save a lot of time, not to mention launch costs, the company said. It could also allow astronauts to manufacture new tools on the fly when “unforeseen situations” arise in orbit.

Check out more about the project in this past Universe Today story. Another NASA 3-D printer contract, given to the Systems & Materials Research Cooperation, could lead to a device to manufacture food for crew members.

Source: Made In Space

Handy! 3-D Printing Could Build Moon Bases And Improve Items Used In Space

Star Trek replicators, here we come. The European Space Agency has released a list of how 3-D printing could change space exploration forever. And lest you think this type of printing is far in the future, images like those disembodied hands above show you it’s come a long way. Those are 3-D replicas of a glove worn by European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegal.

The applications range from the small — making lighter valves, for example — to ambitious projects such as constructing a moon base. Below are some ESA images showing uses for 3-D printing, and if they’ve missed some, be sure to let us know in the comments.

Two valves -- which is the 3-D printed one? It's the one on the right. The original (left) is a water on-off valve (Woov) flown on the European Space Agency's Columbus module on the International Space Station. The replica is 40 percent less massive. Credit: ESA
Two valves — which is the 3-D printed one? It’s the one on the right. The original (left) is a water on-off valve (Woov) flown on the European Space Agency’s Columbus module on the International Space Station. The replica is 40 percent less massive. Credit: ESA
Artist's conception of a lunar dome based on 3-D printing. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners
Artist’s conception of a lunar dome based on 3-D printing. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners
A 3-D printed showerhead injector that apparently saves on time in the normal manufacturing process: usually it takes "more than 100 separate welds to produce", according to the European Space Agency. The holes, however, are made by secondary processing. Credit: ESA
A 3-D printed showerhead injector that apparently saves on time in the normal manufacturing process: usually it takes “more than 100 separate welds to produce”, according to the European Space Agency. The holes, however, are made by secondary processing. Credit: ESA
A closeup of a titanium lattice ball made using a 3-D printer. According to the European Space Agency, the hollow spheres have a "complex external geometry" that cannot be made with the usual manufacturing processes. Credit: ESA
A closeup of a titanium lattice ball made using a 3-D printer. According to the European Space Agency, the hollow spheres have a “complex external geometry” that cannot be made with the usual manufacturing processes. Credit: ESA

Elon Musk Creates Rocket Parts With the Wave of a Hand

We knew SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was powerful, but now he’s gone all Ironman on us. Last week on Twitter he posted a teaser, saying, “Will post video of designing a rocket part with hand gestures & immediately printing in titanium.”

And now, here it is.

“I believe we’re on the verge of a major breakthrough in design and manufacturing,” says Musk in the video, “in being able to take a concept of something from your mind and translate into a 3-D object intuitively on the computer, then make that virtual 3-D object real just by printing it. It’s going to revolutionize manufacturing and design in the 21st century.”

See a montage of images of a SuperDraco rocket part made of Inconel-X, an austenitic nickel-chromium-based superalloy, emerge from a 3-D printer:

Musk and his design team have been working on using natural gesture-based interaction with a computer-aided design program called Leap Motion, allowing designers to work quickly to create parts, and then equally as quick, use 3-D printing in a metal superalloy to create the part.

Very cool.

3-D Printer Passes Key Step On Road to Space Station

The joke about home renovation projects is it takes at least three trips to the hardware store to finish the work. In space, of course, spare parts are a lot harder to come by, meaning astronauts might have to wait for a spacecraft shipment, if, say, the toilet breaks. (Yes, this yucky situation has happened before.)

Some spare parts could be manufactured in space as early as next year, though, providing a 3-D printer passes all the preliminary steps. It recently got a big boost in that direction after passing its microgravity tests successfully, but there are still environmental tests to come, said the company that was behind the work.

“The 3-D printer we’re developing for the ISS is all about enabling astronauts today to be less dependent on Earth,” stated Noah Paul-Gin, the lead for the microgravity experiment.

“The version that will arrive on the ISS next year has the capability of building an estimated 30% of the spare parts on the station, as well as various objects such as specialty tools and experiment upgrades.”

A close-up of the 3-D printer prototype made by Made in Space. Credit: Made in Space
A close-up of the 3-D printer prototype made by Made in Space. Credit: Made in Space

The firm tested the printer during four flights that, in part, simulated microgravity. They were on a specially designed airplane that flies parabolas, meaning it climbs and then briefly simulates, roller-coaster style, microgravity during the plunge before climbing again. (Each microgravity test is only about 30 seconds long.)

“The unique challenges posed by off-Earth 3-D printing require technology and hardware specifically adapted for space. In these microgravity tests, Made in Space assessed layer adhesion, resolution and part strength in the microgravity environment,” the company added.

After Made in Space received a contract for the 3D printer a couple of years ago, it flew three prototype versions that collectively were in microgravity 32 times.

If this printer makes it to space and performs well, it will add to the excitement of 3-D printing that has been swirling around the space community lately.

A study led by NASA recently investigated the possibility of using 3-D printing in association with creating robots to work on asteroids. Astronauts on the station could also have a food replicator of sorts on board the station, too, if a grant awarded to Systems & Materials Research Corperation this May pans out.

Source: Made In Space