NASA's 'Smart Fabric'

Larry Klaes (
Fri, 17 Sep 1999 16:10:10 -0400

>Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 16:05:33 -0400 (EDT)
>Reply-To: fpspace@SOLAR.RTD.UTK.EDU
>Sender: fpspace@SOLAR.RTD.UTK.EDU
>From: Dan Barkley <>
>To: Multiple recipients of list <fpspace@SOLAR.RTD.UTK.EDU>
>Subject: NASA's 'Smart Fabric'
>X-Comment: Friends and Partners in Space
> -The Times/ London
> INTELLIGENT FABRICS could be the key to craft travelling
> outside our solar system.
> Nasa will next month announce a $6m project to build the
> world's largest telescope, using an inflatable smart fabric it is
> developing. The space agency is also working on another
> smart fabric that could be used to make huge solar sails to
> take spacecraft into other solar systems.
> The idea is to make the spacecraft as big as possible, says Art
> Chmielewski, manager of the new Gossamer Spacecraft
> Initiative at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
> California.
> "Everyone talks about miniaturising spacecraft and having lots
> of tiny satellites working together," he says. "We looked at
> that and found that for looking very far away, or travelling
> huge distances, size does matter. The bigger the craft, the
> faster you will travel and the further you will see. The
> challenge is to make the craft as light as possible, allowing it to
> be launched cheaply."
> Chmielewski believes the best way to make a craft light is to
> make it inflatable. His team is working on a project that would
> allow a space telescope the size of a football field to be folded
> and launched from a craft the size of a coffee cup.
> "Existing materials aren't up to the job - if you made one of
> these telescopes from glass 1mm thick, it would still weigh
> about four tonnes and break easily. We have to develop
> something that can inflate itself to become solid and stable.
> "A lot of work on inflatable craft has been done, but nothing
> on this scale. We want to create craft the size of a city that
> are far lighter than today's craft."
> Chmielewski's Advanced Radio Interferometry between
> Space and Earth space telescope (Arise) would be launched
> on a standard Delta rocket. It would unfold and inflate itself in
> space to form a 25-metre diameter telescope able to study
> black holes and other phenomena in greater detail than Hubble
> or Nasa's planned Hubble 2.
> "Arise is a technology testbed," he says. "Once we perfect the
> technology, we can make telescopes that are far larger and
> can even change their shape over time. For instance, we hope
> to build a smart fabric that can change its shape, which could
> be used as the lens of the telescope. Once the image is
> received, the craft can check for any image problems and
> automatically change its shape to correct them.
> "At the moment this is impossible and we have to manipulate
> images with a computer on earth. By allowing the craft to do
> this itself, we can save a lot of time and greatly improve the
> image quality. It's a way of allowing the craft to fix itself if it
> goes wrong."
> Another of Chmielewski's projects is to develop a smart fabric
> that could be used as a huge solar sail, allowing it to be pushed
> by the solar wind at high speeds.
> Chmielewski says this could eventually be the way we power
> spacecraft fast enough to take us outside our solar system.
> "Solar sails are not a new idea, but our work is on developing
> materials that actually make them usable," he says. "For
> instance, one of the things we are working on is a kind of
> fabric that not only forms the sail, but also the computing and
> communication system. It will do this by containing tiny
> electronic components that actually form part of the fabric.
> This allows us to develop a craft that can actually change its
> mission and evolve over time - if it is made from smart fabric,
> it can change its shape easily.
> "This will also have uses back on earth and we are already
> talking to companies about creating intelligent clothing like a
> shirt with a mobile phone built into it."
> Nasa is sponsoring a two-day meeting next month to get more
> ideas for future missions. Chmielewski says: "We're interested
> in slightly wacky ideas. One thing we have just started looking
> at is a system where we use only a tiny ribbon of material that
> we spin round to form a disc, which then becomes the
> telescope lens. We have no idea if it will work, but that is the
> kind of idea we are looking for. The Gossamer project is not
> really about missions we can do now, but about finding
> concepts and ideas for missions in 25 years."