NASA is 3D printing rocket engine parts

In case you haven’t heard, NASA is building a new rocket – a replacement for the shuttle – that will eventually take crews again outside low Earth orbit. It’s called the Space Launch System and looks surprisingly similar to the Saturn V that took men to the moon. Manufacturing technology is light years ahead of what it was in the mid-60s, and this time around NASA is printing some rocket parts with selective laser melting.

Teams at the Marshall Space Flight center are melting metal powder together with lasers to produce parts for the new J-2X engine intended for use in the earth departure stage of the Space Launch System. While the 3d-printed parts haven’t seen a use in any live fire tests of the J-2X, the goal is to test these parts out later in the year and eventually have them man-rated, to carry astronauts to the moon, asteroids, or even Mars.

This isn’t the first time 3d printing has been used to make rocket engines. Earlier this year we saw [Rocket Moonlighting] build an entire rocket engine, powered by propane and NO2, using the same technology that NASA is using. [Moonlighting]‘s engine is quite small, too small to lift itself off the ground, even. Still, it’s awesome to see 3D printing that will eventually take people into solar orbit.

Comments

  1. lwatcdr says:

    I don’t know how new this is? A friend of mine worked on the Centuar and mentioned that they had and used an SLM machine.

    • John says:

      I think the only thing that’s new here is the application. They’re trying to qualify SLM for building rocket motor parts. I’m not sure if that’s been done before.

      Shame on NASA. They never put any technical information in their articles.

  2. Tyler says:

    What are the advantages over investment casting in a professional application with money and time to burn?

    • Cynyr says:

      I would expect that the temperature during manufacturing is more consistent allowing for higher tolerances.

      That part looks pretty thin walled, I’m not sure how well it would cast considering the “shrinkage” that happens.

      I would also think that this wastes less material as there is no need for the reservoir like there would be in traditional sand casting.

      Not to mention can you find a foundry that will make 3 of something for you in yoru exotic metal? I’m betting the set-up fee may almost pay for the selective laser melting printer (used).

  3. Coda says:

    >…will take people into solar orbit?
    We are already in a solar orbit… I would like to see at least an earth orbit, followed by either a lunar orbit, martian orbit or something more interesting :)

  4. Brasser says:

    This really isn’t new. NASA was using old SLA 3d printers 20 years ago to make forms for astronaut’s gloves.

    The only difference is this is metal. Porous, weak metal.

    • barry99705 says:

      Not all SLS will give you weak parts. There are manufacturers that can make parts that are FAA approved for flight. Not something I’d consider weak.

    • Eirinn says:

      Usually after powder printing, the metal item is infused with another type of metal.

      I’ve seen production runs that uses stainless steel powder for the base item and then infuses it with bronze.

      • dorsai says:

        These are more than likely full density stainless or nickel superalloys, the SLM process is different than the SLS process with binders and infusion. These directly melt the metal powder, rather than melting a binder and then burning it out while sintering/infusing like the prints you’re thinking of.

        The lower end SLM printers (say, 100-200W laser) can already create 98% solid stainless. Takes a bit more to create full solid and inconel/monel parts, but you get the idea.

  5. Chris C. says:

    In a situation where every gram of weight counts, it seems odd to use a process that doesn’t yield the full possible metallurgical strength, and so may require more material. Though I’m sure it’s more complicated than that.

    I also wonder how a porous part measures up when it comes to issues like stress corrosion cracking, hydrogen embrittlement, etc.

    • ChrisC says:

      From how it sounds the laser melts the metal powder, rather than using a binder, or only sintering the particles together, therefore it should be pretty dense.

    • dorsai says:

      SLM (and EBM) processes now are at the point where they can provide the full metallurgical strength and density. Actually, there are some processes where the bulk material has better properties than conventional cast materials because you have exact control of the cooling profiles for every cubic millimeter of the part.

      Sources: Optomec and GE Aviation

    • John U says:

      Chris – worth considering that if you couldn’t print the part you may have to make it much heavier (in two bits bolted together, for example) or a different shape that then causes other weight gains/headaches elsewhere in the system.

  6. kg4awg says:

    The reason it looks so much like a Saturn 5 is because it is basically. Back during the space race they were moving so fast they fought to take notes. Once NASA decided to go back to the moon they took the old Saturn 5 on display out side NASA headquarters and had to reverse engineered it. Most of the companies that made what put us into space went put of business afterwards and all the blueprints and manuals died with them.

  7. tech-no-pest says:

    Go NASA…three steps forward and 4 decades back.
    Makes JAX look a hole lot more advanced.

  8. gaunt1et says:

    Really? “Light years ahead.” Come on Brian.

  9. Hitek146 says:

    Personally, I am impressed with the print quality of the orange ball-point pen…

  10. Whatnot says:

    So how come the video I saw have them say ‘it’s not certified yet but we hope soon…’.

    That translates to me as ‘maybe in the future’ and all those headlines that go ‘is using’ are a bit off.

  11. A5st says:

    “Manufacturing technology is light years ahead of what it was in the mid-60s”

    Really? Cheaper sure, but other than electronics, what plethora of new manufacturing technologies emerged to warrant “light years”?

    Honestly curious.

    • dorsai says:

      Manufacturing tolerances have come a lot closer together, allowing us to create parts more repeatably and reliably, and create fits and finishes that improve the quality of a part.

      Metallurgy and our understanding of it have also come surprisingly far since the 60s (you’d be amazed at the advances we’ve made in steel in the last 20 years).

      Combine that with CAD/CAM and you can create lighter, stronger parts – faster and more reliably than you ever could in the 60s.

  12. Ren says:

    Maybe NASA will sell the uncertified ones as Menorahs for Chanukah. That could bring in a few bucks…

  13. Mike says:

    Not enough branches for a Channukiah.

  14. alexwhittemore says:

    3D printing technology really HAS come a long way, this isn’t your daddy’s SLS. You can print extremely low-tolerance, high-spec parts with SLS these days, for use in the most demanding rocket applications, and many companies do.

    It’s most useful for highly complex geometries where casting doesn’t produce a consistent enough output. Things that are traditionally machined at great expense, where SLS is substantially cheaper.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96,532 other followers