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 rigors of outer space.
The biggest improvement NASA has made in its twenty-first 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.