Laser Beam Welding for in-Space Joining Demonstrated Under Vacuum on the Ground and By Parabolic Flight Experiments

E. Choi, A. Brimmer, W. McAuley, B. Panton, A. Ramirez, W. Evans, A. O'Connor, Z. Courtright, J.W. Sowards
United States

Keywords: parabolic flight experiment, laser beam welding, in-space welding, ISAM, fiber laser


High energy density electron beam welding enabled the first and, to date, only American weld performed in space during the M551 experiment on Skylab in 1973. Though welding is critical to 90% of durable goods manufacturing in America, there is not yet regular and reliable application of welding processes to the In-space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM) sector. Fundamental studies are needed to develop basic capabilities and to enhance fundamental process knowledge, which will support follow-on efforts to mature in-space welding for use in commercial, defense, and other aerospace applications. The current work seeks to build on past flights and improve understanding and quantification of materials joining in space conditions using laser beam welding (LBW). LBW offers several advantages over the electron beam welding of Skylab, amongst others: reduced electromagnetic interference, less exposure of operators to ionizing radiation, and flexible delivery through optical fibers supporting unique workpieces and joints. Since there is no orbital laboratory to mature laser beam welding for space, the current effort addresses maturation of laser beam welding through parabolic flights augmented with data collection to enable numerical modeling efforts that capture the physical effects of the space environment. This team has retrofitted an LBW experimental apparatus that can simulate the vacuum and, during a parabolic flight, the reduced gravity & microgravity conditions of in-space welding. A team of Capstone students modified the setup, originally developed by NASA Langley Research Center for electron beam free-form fabrication, to replace its electron gun with a 1 kW, 1070 nm Yb fiber laser. The apparatus was further instrumented with temperature sensing and high-speed welding cameras to monitor and record changes in the thermal state of the workpiece, the melt pool, the laser penetration level, and the development and orientation of spatter & plumes. The system will operate autonomously, demonstrating its utility to uncrewed missions. During upcoming parabolic flight campaigns expected summer 2024, this LBW equipment will weld common aerospace alloys of aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium under conditions representative of the space environment. This data will guide future computational modeling efforts of laser welding in space and help to qualify in-space welding as a viable ISAM technique.