The race is on to build hypersonic weapons, missiles that blow through a target’s defenses at more than five times the speed of sound. Or should that be “the race to grow hypersonic weapons”? It turns out an unrelated cutting-edge technology, 3D printing, may be the key to making hypersonics work.
The whole aerospace world is intrigued by so-called additive manufacturing — especially for government and/or unmanned applications not subject to laborious FAA safety testing on new technology. NASA has a 3D printer on the International Space Station; the Navy has tested one on a ship. Several rocket engine companies have built key components for these exemplars of high tech using 3D printing; at Elon Musk’s radical venture SpaceX, for example, “they have a big 3D printer [and] they are making parts that are in production rocket engines right now,” said aerospace consultant Kevin Michaels, a vice-president at ICF International.
The ability to build up components dot by dot, layer by layer, can be helpful in making conventional aircraft, spacecraft, and missiles. But when it comes to making hypersonic systems, which require exotic materials and strangely shaped components that conventional methods can’t handle, 3D printing may be essential.