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NASA Has Successfully 3D Printed a Rocket Engine and it Works!


3D printing has been used in almost every aspect in the last couple of years by the aerospace industry, especially by NASA, as it has attempted to use printed parts in every possible way for their missions. For prototyping to manufacturing engine parts, they have been rather successful, especially when it comes to the latter aspect, as they have just recently tested an entire rocket engine that was 3D printed. The engine produced thrust of 20,000 pounds, by using oxygen and cryogenic liquid hydrogen.

This recent success ensures the future of NASA using 3D printed parts for their space exploration. They have also previously spoken extensively about the advantages of 3D printing technology, especially as a method of saving costs for lengthy missions. These constant tests undertaken by NASA determines whether this technology can produce vital parts for the space crafts or not.

Previously, NASA tested a turbopump that was 3D printed for rocket propulsion in their test facility in Alabama. The amount of 3D printed parts used in this experiment is what made this new test particularly interesting. 75% of the parts that were needed were manufactured and tested, and once the injectors, valves, as well as the turbopumps were successfully tested together, it showed that building a printed engine would be possible for various purposes, such as the rocket upper stages, landers, or even space propulsion.

For the past 3 years, NASA has developed several different 3D printed parts, and this engine is part of that. Most of the parts, however, were either tested separately or with other non-3D printed parts or setups, but this engine was tested with several different 3D printed parts working altogether, just as a typical engine would have been tested. This is known as the breadboard engine in engineering jargon, and the most important thing is that the parts all worked in the same way as a conventional engine would, and it is also able to perform in extreme pressures and temperatures that occurs inside a rocket’s engine.

The turbopump raced at a speed which was more than 90,000 rpm, and the flames produced thrust which was more than 20,000 pounds, meaning that an engine as such can produce power enough for a Mars lander or the rocket’s upper stage.

7 tests in total were performed, and the longest of the tests lasted for 10 seconds. The engine produced with rapid prototyping was exposed to the extreme conditions that a conventional flight rocket engine is exposed to in all of the tests. A normal flight rocket engine burns fuel at temperatures more than 3,315°C, which is exactly what the printed engine was exposed to. The printed turbopump which was previously tested delivered liquid hydrogen which was cooled to a temperature below -240°C. Both liquid oxygen and cryogenic nitrogen were used during these tests, which are quite common propellants in the spaceship’s propulsion system. Although these may not be used for their mission to Mars, the same erosion effects and extreme temperatures are produced by them as an alternative for the gasses, oxygen and methane, that might be produced on Mars.

Rocket parts usually suffer from embrittlement because of these extreme conditions, which is why the parts produced by rapid prototyping services need to be strong and durable. The experiments were successful, and all the parts performed just as they were expected to. More tests are on their way with more 3D printed parts, this time with a nozzle and a cooled combustion chamber. These tests are also responsible for decreasing the prices of 3D printing, which is still quite a new process in the aerospace industry.

Then again, these parts were all manufactured using the best technology, which is selective laser melting. Not only is this technology cost effective, it has also helped make the parts a lot more efficient. The printed turbopump, for example, has 45% fewer parts than the traditional turbopipe and it also includes features that would have otherwise been impossible to create. Additionally, it has also proved itself to be extremely quick. A valve would traditionally have taken about a year to manufacture, but 3D printing has allowed them to be produced in only a few months. On top of that, the new and efficient structures that were used on the piece parts of the valves resulted in a much more optimized performance than ever before.

It goes without saying that this technology will become extremely handy for NASA’s research & development process. Geometrical designs that would otherwise have been impossible with the traditional casting methods and machining can now be easily produced with this technology, which has really opened up the design space for NASA. That said, this breadboard engine is still not completed and a lot more work needs to be done on it before it can be used, such as scaling it down and making it even more efficient; however, there is hope and things are looking up.



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