NASA is developing 3D printer technology that will allow them to manufacture parts for their Space Launch System (SLS) which will get us back to the moon and ultimately to Mars.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden (second from right in the above photo) recently toured the Marshall Space Flight Center to see how developments in 3D printing can be used in space. Bolden envisions a time when NASA will launch missions with just 3d printing machines and materiel, and everything they’ll need can be made when they get to their destination.
These lofty goals are a little way off yet but NASA is still exploring ways in which 3D printers can help improve space vehicle manufacturing and reduce spacecraft payloads. Research is continuing into using lunar regolith as raw material for 3D printers and at Marshall they are starting to use selective laser melting (SLM) to build complex components for the SLS engines.
NASA’s SLM 3d printers fuse a finely powdered Iconel alloy into components that are very difficult to make using traditional manufacturing methods. For example, an engine injector can cost $250,000 to make conventionally, but the SLM produced part would be around $25,000 and take a matter of weeks rather than months.
SLM can produce a component in a single piece, rather than being put together from several hundred individual parts that have to be welded. Welds are inherently a weak point and SLM production is cheaper, faster and also reduces the likelihood of the finished part suffering from welding defects.
Parts produced using SLM are being tested in the SLS’s J-2X engine with the possibility of 3D printed parts debuting on a 2017 flight.
NASA is also thinking about how 3D printers can help astronauts during missions. The ability of a spacecraft’s crew to print their own tools and parts during a mission far from Earth may be vital for its success.
Source: NASA/Popular Mechanics