3D printing is reshaping the way we think about manufacturing and prototyping, and now NASA is using a version of the technique to build the next generation of rockets. The process, known as "selective laser melting," uses layers of metal powder traced in specific patterns by a laser. The powder welds together at the point of contact, and the process is then repeated in layers, building up a physical object in the same way traditional 3D printing works. "The laser will layer the melted dust to fuse whatever part we need from the ground up, creating intricate designs," says Ken Cooper, the lead of advanced manufacturing team at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "The process produces parts with complex geometries and precise mechanical properties from a three-dimensional computer-aided design."
The process is being used to create parts for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), a heavy-lift rocket that is slated to be used with the Orion capsule for an eventual mission to Mars. Selective laser melting, NASA says, can keep down costs and increase safety of the rocket parts. The 3D-printed parts will be evaluated as part of the J-2X engine tests later this year (the J-2X will be used as the upper-stage engine in the new NASA rocket). As far as official uses, NASA hopes to use the new parts on the first SLS test flight in 2017.