How NASA is Making Rockets By Welding Metal Powder with Lasers

Illustration for article titled How NASA is Making Rockets By Welding Metal Powder with Lasers

Normally, rockets are made of a whole bunch of small parts that are intricately attached to each other to form the body that can actually fly into space. If you could build complex geometrical parts out of a single piece of material, however, things would get much easier. That's where metal powder and lasers come in.


The process is called selective laser melting, and for all intents and purposes, it's like a more badass version of typical 3D printing. Instead of putting down layers of plastic, the system works with a pile of metal powder which is then welded into the appropriate form by being shot by lasers. When you brush the excess metal away, you've got exactly the piece you need all in one part.

In addition to reducing the places where a rocket could critically fail, the process of selective laser melting also makes it easy to churn out custom-built pieces way faster than any competing method. Some selective laser melted parts are due to be tested in hot-fire tests of a J-2X engine later this year. The hope is they can be tested in actual test flight by 2017. No matter how those tests may turn out, you can't deny the method is pretty righteous. [NASA via Engadget]


Just think of all of the previously impossible geometry! And all of the simplified parts! I spend much of my week trying to constrain my ideas to things that can be stamped, cast, molded or machined, so this gets my mind racing. I'm sure it's not cheap...for now.

It will be amazing if they can actually make high-stress rocket parts for human-rated space vehicles. Then all we would need is the technology to come down in price a bit before we will start seeing made-to-order car parts. We wouldn't have to rely so heavily on warehouses full of replacement parts. And you just know that Jay Leno would buy a couple of these to churn out bespoke parts for his bizarre one-of-a-kinds.

"What's that? You need some obscure valve for your 1908 Stanley Steamer Raceabout? Will that be steel, aluminum, or titanium? That will be ready in 4 hours."