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Wanderers: 3D-printed spacewear for medieval Arab astronauts

A series of 3D-printed garments is inspired by space travel, symbiosis and the medieval astronomers of the Middle East.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
4 min read

Mushtari Photo credit: Yoram Reshef. Photo courtesy of Neri Oxman.

There's something romantic about the etymology of the word "planet". It's from the Ancient Greek, "planḗtēs" -- meaning "wanderer" -- referring to the way planets "wander" about the sky in their orbits around the sun, as opposed to stars, which have fixed positions.

What we often infer from that in the current day is that we, too, may be wanderers of the cosmos: with a human expedition to Mars looking increasingly feasible, the inspiring idea of human among the stars has sparked anew.

It is this idea of the planetary explorer that has inspired the latest collection by architect and designer Neri Oxman. And yet Wanderers mingles the future with science fiction and the past: a collection of four garments designed to be infused with synthetically engineered microorganisms, inspired by the famed astronomers in the Islamic medieval world, each for a different planet in the solar system.

"Travelling to destinations beyond planet Earth involves voyages to hostile landscapes and deadly environments. Crushing gravity, ammonious air, prolonged darkness, and temperatures that would boil glass or freeze carbon dioxide, all but eliminate the likelihood of human visitation," Oxman wrote.

"Wanderers explores the possibility of voyaging to the worlds beyond by visiting the worlds within. 3D-printed wearable capillaries for interplanetary pilgrims are designed to be infused with synthetically engineered microorganisms to make the hostile habitable and the deadly alive. Each design is a codex of the animate and inanimate with an origin and a destination: the origin being engineered organisms, which multiply to create the wearable within a 3D printed skins; and the destination being a unique planet in the solar system. The origin and the destination enable design exploration engaging multiple scales, from the atomic to the cosmic. The setting for this exploration is the solar system where, with the exception of planet Earth, no life is known to exist."

Video created for Neri Oxman's Wanderers collection by Christoph Bader and Dominik Kolb. Courtesy of Neri Oxman

There are four garments in the collection, each of which is based on a planet in the solar system, named for an Arabian god, and each of which is based on one of the elements thought to sustain life by ancient scholars: earth, water, air and fire. These elements inform the design of each garment in order to react with the specific environment of the destination planet.

"Each wearable," Oxman explained, "is designed for a specific extreme environment where it transforms elements that are found in the atmosphere to one of the classical elements supporting life: oxygen for breathing, photons for seeing, biomass for eating, biofuels for moving, and calcium for building."

Mushtari -- king of the stars, the Arabic word for "giant" -- is for Jupiter. Its design is inspired by the form and function of the human gastrointestinal tract: a single channel, looping and folding in on itself, filled with living matter: an organ system designed for consuming and digesting biomess, with cyanobacteria converting daylight into consumable sucrose.

Zuhal Photo credit: Yoram Reshef. Photo courtesy of Neri Oxman.

Zuhal is for Saturn, its Arabic name representing fertility and growth: a whorled bodice with a hairy texture, a response to the vortex winds of the planet. It acts as a vortex field, varying in size, density and composition in order to accommodate the local atmospheric winds -- and containing bacteria that convert hydrocarbons, such as those found on Titan, into matter that is safe for human consumption.

Al-Qamar is for the moon, and is designed to act as a wearable pneumatic surface for both generating and storing oxygen -- its patterning inspired by the surface of the moon. Spherical pockets inside conduct algae-based air purification, and collect biofuels.

Finally, Oraared, for Mercury, the planet with no atmosphere -- thus vulnerable to asteroid impacts. The garment is designed to extend from the wearer's scapulae, growing upwards over the head; filled with calcifying bacteria, it grows into a bone-like structure to protect from matter falling from the stars.

The garments, while only artistic concepts as far as real-life space travel is concerned, do offer something new in the realm of 3D printing: volumetric transparency. This was achieved through a process known as bitmap printing, rather than vector printing. This means that the print is voxel-based, allowing the designer to vary properties locally -- colour, rigidity and opacity -- and providing greater control over the relationship between a structure and its properties. The garments were printed on a Stratasys 3D printer.

However, these wearables -- exhibited for the first time at EuroMold on November 25-28 -- are just one step in the process. Oxman and her team hope to transform Mushtari into a living wearable. Along with her colleagues at MIT's Mediated Matter Group, Will Patrick and Stephen Keating, she has been developing a multi-material 3D-printed microfluidic device through which to pump living matter into the garment.

"Wanderers lies at the intersection of design, additive manufacturing and synthetic biology, bringing together digital growth and biological growth. The designs for Wanderers were digitally 'grown' through a process capable of producing a wide variety of structures," Oxman wrote.

"Inspired by natural growth, the computational process creates shapes that adapt to an environment. Starting with a 'seed', the process simulates growth by continuously expanding and refining its shape."

Otaared Photo credit: Yoram Reshef. Photo courtesy of Neri Oxman.

Al-Qamar. Photo credit: Yoram Reshef. Photo courtesy of Neri Oxman.