article image

Futuristic technology to build NASA's next rockets

Sarah Cruddas
Nov 8, 2012, 8:00 UTC

Sen— A technique similar to 3D printing is set to help build NASA's next generation of rockets. Known as Selective Laser Melting (SLM), the futuristic technology will be used by scientists and engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to help create the intricate metal parts for the agency's next heavy lift rocket.

The Space Launch System (SLS) development is being managed at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Once complete the rocket will be the biggest and most capable ever built, designed for exploration missions beyond Earth's orbit. 

Selective Laser Melting works by a machine taking metal powder and using a high-energy laser to melt it in a designed pattern. According to Ken Cooper, who heads up the advanced manufacturing team at the Marshall Space Flight Center, "The laser will layer the melted dust to fuse whatever part we need from the ground up, creating intricate designs. The process produces parts with complex geometries and precise mechanical properties from a three-dimensional computer-aided design." 

Those behind the project say that by using this state-of-the-art technique will bring benefits to safety as well as reducing manufacturing costs. The technique significantly reduces the manufacturing time required to produce parts from months to weeks, or even days in some cases. "It's a significant improvement in affordability, saving both time and money" says Andy Hardin, the integration hardware lead for the Engines Office in SLS. "Also, since we're not welding parts together, the parts are structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle."

The SLS is being designed to take humans and robots deeper into space, to asteroids, the Moon and eventually to Mars. It will also be used to back up commercial and international transportation services to the International Space Station. It is NASA’s first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo missions.

Structural testing of some of the new 'printed' engine parts will take place later this year in hot-fire tests of a J-2X. The J-2X engine will be used as the upper stage engine for the SLS. 

The goal is to use selective laser melting to manufacture parts on the first SLS test flight in 2017, helping to make the rocket more affordable while increasing the safety of future astronauts.