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NASA using 3D printing technology to build parts for Mars-bound rocket

When it comes to 3D printing, it’s almost as if there’s a game of one-upmanship going on as to what can be created using this emerging technology. We’ve seen an acoustic guitar (novel) knocked together using 3D printing technology, a titanium jaw (impressive), an electric racing car (it’s getting interesting now), a plane (amazing) and even ‘magic’ arms (interesting and amazing).

Evidently not wanting to be outdone, and mindful of having access to some of the most advanced technology in the world, NASA recently piped up to say it’s currently using a kind of 3D printing technology to help build parts for future rockets that could one day carry humans to Mars. Top that, 3D printing fanatics.

The method, called selective laser melting (SLM), can create intricate metal parts for future space rockets and could save the space agency millions of dollars in manufacturing costs, NASA said on its website recently.

Explaining SLM technology, Ken Cooper of NASA’s Space Flight Center in Alabama said, “Basically, this machine takes metal powder and uses a high-energy laser to melt it in a designed pattern.

“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.”

According to Andy Hardin of NASA’s Engines Office, using the technology can cut manufacturing time drastically “from months to weeks or even days in some cases.”

He added that since engineers wouldn’t be welding parts together, the more complete parts created using SLM technology will be “structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle.”

Saving money while improving reliability and safety means utilizing the technology is something of a no-brainer for the space agency, which is already dealing with major cuts to its budget.

Parts created using the technology will be tested on the ground later this year with NASA aiming to use them in a test flight in 2017. 

[Image: NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin – shows the first test piece produced on one of NASA’s SLM machines, with a pen included for scale.]

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