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3D printed molds help insulate NASA’s Space Launch System

NASA engineers have qualified 3D printing for thermal protection systems

NASA technicians and engineers have qualified 3D printing technologies to help in the creation of tailored thermal protection systems for the Space Launch System. The new deep space rocket must be able to endure extreme conditions and temperatures when it launches NASA’s Orion spacecraft and cargo into lunar orbit—3D printed molds could help achieve this needed resistance.

The process of applying thermal protection to the Space Launch System and other rockets of its kind typically consists of using spray-on foam and traditional insulation to encase the rocket’s components. These materials help to protect the rocket from heat during the launch and simultaneously keep the rocket’s propellant cold within tanks.

But while these methods are suitable for larger components, the rocket’s smallest, most complex pieces of hardware are trickier to thermally protect. In addition to manually spraying the foam into such small components, NASA engineers have found that 3D printed molds offer a suitable solution for protecting internal engine ducts and other hard to access parts.

NASA 3D molds Space Launch System
NASA and Boeing completed the majority of outfitting for the core stage engine section of the SLS

The simple but effective technique consists of 3D printing a mold that corresponds to the space around a given assembly and then pouring the liquid foam into the mold until it expands to perfectly fit the part. According to NASA, this method has decreased the overall processing time significantly by reducing the need for time-consuming post-process trimming.

In qualifying the process, NASA teamed up with Boeing engineers to perform extensive pour foam tests. Results from these early tests enabled the team to establish a more sophisticated process that reduces the amount of time needed to certify the 3D printed molds, saving more time to focus on the critical requirements for each flight foam application.

Boeing is the prime contractor for NASA’s Space Launch System—a deep space rocket that, in combination with the Orion, is expected to transport astronauts to the moon by 2024. “Our backbone for deep space exploration is SLS and Orion, which will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Gateway in lunar orbit,” the space agency said. “From there, astronauts will ultimately use a proposed human lunar landing system for missions to the surface of the Moon.”

Last week, NASA successfully tested a 2,400 lbf 3D printed copper rocket thrust chamber with a composite overwrap. The testing demonstrated the potential of combining 3D printing and advanced composite technologies to manufacture thrust chamber assemblies for liquid rocket engines.

Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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