Chain mail was an essential tool for medieval warriors hoping to avoid a quick (or slow) death by a sword. But NASA engineers hope a similar material, with a few modern upgrades, could prove to be just as useful for spacecraft and astronauts looking to survive the rigours of outer space.
The biggest improvement NASA has made in its 21st century version of chain mail, developed by a team led by Raul Polit Casillas at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is how it's manufactured. Instead of a medieval blacksmith spending weeks painstakingly connecting tiny loops of metal, one by one, the material shown above and below is 3D printed by a machine, which means it could be produced as needed on the space station, or on other off-Earth habitats, depending on where we travel in the coming decades.
But the ease of manufacturing isn't the only reason this new material could one day be an essential tool for space exploration. Both sides of the metallic fabric have been engineered for very specific, and different, uses. The top, which looks like a mosaic of shiny metal tiles, is able to reflect light and serve as a form of passive heat management. The other side, which looks more like traditional medieval chain mail, can absorb heat instead, allowing it to serve as insulation.
While at this point it is still a laboratory experiment, the material could eventually be used in space suits, on habitats, wrapped around vehicles and spacecraft to help protect them against unforeseen hazards, or even laid down on alien terrain to give us a safe place to land a ship. Unlike the ceramic tiles used to protect the Space Shuttle on re-entry, this flexible but strong 3D-printed fabric has countless applications, which is another reason it could be valuable for future missions to other planets.
When humans eventually find themselves on an alien world, millions of kilometres away from Earth and its natural resources, we're going to need to be able to manufacture everything we need on site. But given that we won't have an unlimited supply of raw materials, what we build away from home will have to offer as much functionality and reusability as possible. Chain mail may sound like an odd choice for a futuristic fabric, but if history is any guide, it can serve an awful lot of useful purposes.