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NASA Plans 3D Printing Future Rocket Parts with Lasers

By Wesley Fenlon

Selective laser melting can create more reliable rocket components more quickly than traditional manufacturing.

Imagine a room full of NASA employees, geniuses all, using MakerBots to 3D print parts for future space journeys. Cool vision, right? That room exists, as MakerBot's Bre Pettis told us last year. NASA uses MakerBots to rapidly and cheaply prototype parts, replacing a process that once would've taken days or weeks. For some parts, though, a $2000 3D printer isn't going to cut it. When it comes to building materials for its next rockets, NASA's using another 3D printing technique called selective laser melting. When we next blast off from Earth and head beyond the moon to an asteroid or Mars, the rocket will likely be made with 3D printed parts.

Mashable writes that NASA's Space Launch System, or SLS, will initially have to lift a payload of 70 million tons out of Earth's atmosphere. Eventually that number will rise to 130 million tons, as longer trips to near-Earth asteroids or Mars--planned to take place by the mid-2030s--will require more supplies. To build the rockets for that trip, NASA's implementing selective laser melting for the first time.

It's hard to picture 3D printed parts being as durable as welded metal materials, but NASA points out that in some ways they're actually better. They've discovered that the printed parts handle launch stresses welded components can't. And with no seams, the parts are less likely to leak.

One selective laser melting maker describes the process as "an additive manufacturing technology that uses a high powered ytterbium fibre laser to fuse fine metallic powders together to form functional 3-dimensional parts." LIke the layers of plastic that come out of a MakerBot's print head, a SLM printer places layers of metallic powder one atop the other, fusing each layer in place. Easy to see why that's stronger than your typical PLA plastic. According to NASA, SLM is also cheaper than conventional manufacturing.

When the next generation of NASA spacecraft lift off, these engineers (and selective laser melting) will likely be responsible for the whole thing holding together.