This is NASA's new "space fabric" in development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The metal textile is 3D printed in one piece yet can be easily folded and flexed. Eventually, the researchers expect that such materials could be used as deployable shields to protect spacecrafts from meteorites, as insulation, or possibly for new kinds of spacesuits. To my eye, it could also lead to some fantastic fashions at the cosmic disco. From NASA JPL:
A technique called additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3-D printing on an industrial scale, is necessary to make such fabrics. Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques, in which parts are welded together, additive manufacturing deposits material in layers to build up the desired object. This reduces the cost and increases the ability to create unique materials.
"We call it '4-D printing' because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials," said Polit Casillas. "If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions…"
The space fabrics have four essential functions: reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength. One side of the fabric reflects light, while the other absorbs it, acting as a means of thermal control. It can fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes while still being able to sustain the force of pulling on it.
The JPL team not only wants to try out these fabrics in space someday, they want to be able to manufacture them in space, too.