On Sept. 14, 2011, NASA announced the Space Launch System (SLS) Program: a heavy-lift rocket capable of sending spacecraft, including the agency's Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle, deep into space on missions of discovery and exploration.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. is using a method called selective laser melting, or SLM, to create intricate metal parts for the largest rocket ever built. Using SLM, a type of additive manufacturing technology could save millions in manufacturing costs.
An M2 Cusing manufactured by Concept Laser, a division of Hoffman Innovation Group of Lichtenfels, Germany will be used to develop a material properties database for various alloys and, ultimately, hardware for the RS-25 and J-2X rocket engines.
(Selective Laser Melting at Marshall | Image credit: NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin)
The machine uses high-energy laser to melt powdered metal alloys into a cross-section of the part into a cross-section of the part, then slowly building it up in 20-micron layers.
(The first test piece produced on the M2 Cusing Machine | Image credit: NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin)
There are two major benefits to this process, which are major considerations for the Space Launch System Program: savings and safety. This technology has already allowed a maintenance port cover to be produced for the J-2X engine at approximately one-third the previous cost.
"This process significantly reduces the manufacturing time required to produce parts from months to weeks or even days in some cases," said Andy Hardin, the integration hardware lead for the Engines Office in SLS. "It's a significant improvement in affordability, saving both time and money. Also, since we're not welding parts together, the parts are structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle."
According to NASA, some of the "printed" engine parts will be structurally tested and used in hot-fire tests of a J-2X engine later this year. The J-2X 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.
Watch video of the SLM machine in action:
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